Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Hardest Working Biopic: Get On Up Movie Review

The musical biopic has proved surprisingly durable and accommodating. Who would have figured almost seventy years after the Cole Porter biography Night and Day (1946) would bring us Get On Up (2014), a picture just as tuneful and, in its 21st century way, just as dissimulating concerning the actual stuff of its subject’s life?
james brown.jpg
Chadwick Boseman as James Brown

In some ways we’ve come a long way since the days when Cole Porter’s sexuality was completely concealed in his own life story, even while hiding in plain sight in his lyrics. Get on Up, features a remarkable scene with a provocative, sexually transgressive Little Richard (Brandon Smith), as well as touching, albeit fleetingly, on some of the more painful aspects of the James Brown story: beginning with his abject poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina, though life in a Georgia whorehouse (run by his grandmother), and including incarceration as a teen for stealing a suit. Yet the genius(?) of Get On Up renders a term in a fifties jailhouse in the South as sprightly as the Yale Glee Club.

In fact, it all glides along so darn smoothly that I had trouble reconciling this James Brown with the man whose name appeared in eighties’ talk show monologues as a caricature of rock star excess and abuse. Get On Up has many virtues (I’ll get to those later), but verisimilitude does not happen to be one of them. While it might seem perverse to structure a movie about a man who famously ran through wives and band-members like water around the idea of his evolving interpersonal skills, insofar as Get on Up can be said to have a particular approach, this is it. (Director Taylor Hackford applies the same thick gloss matte here that he did in The Help,  a  style which renders even shit pie an amusing trifle. I’d say this was merely a matter of cinematography except that it very much extends to the emotional life of the characters. )

From a narrative point of view, it’s fascinating to consider the ways in which Get on Up both entertains and exorcises Brown’s volatile relationships. The film must deal with his monomaniacal control issues, but chooses to do so through the lens of two enduring relationships.
The first of these two totemic figures is based on long-time band-member Bobby Byrd, a real person. In the film, it’s Brown who helps secure early release from jail for the talented young singer, and, even as the rest of The Famous Flames, the group with whom Brown makes his first recordings but which disbanded as Brown increasingly seized control and credit. Byrd, a real person, also represents a rationale for Brown’s dictatorial behavior within the band. In several key scenes where Brown repeatedly fines, berates and otherwise is borderline abusive with his band, Byrd is shown loyally sticking with his friend even as others depart in droves, muttering imprecations.  
Byrd was in fact a real musician, but within the film he is very much the audience’s stand-in, justifying with his presence and periodically with noble speeches, why we might want to stick with this turkey over the long haul.
James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis)

The answer, rendered explicitly on numerous occasions by Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, is that James Brown is a remarkable genius who will be remembered by history. Byrd is seen as wisely seizing his chance to support someone truly exceptional, continuously reinforcing this point by his own ongoing presence in the film while legions of other musicians fall by the wayside, whiny and exchangeable.
This rendering is plausible, sort of true, and also highly strategic. While focusing on a musician of mediocre talent who is content to remain a supporting player to one of history’s greats, Get On Up discounts the contributions of the many extremely talented players who went on to successful music careers of their own. Included among these is Bootsy Collins, whose name is ever-so-briefly heard in the air, but who receives almost no screen time.
Real life James Brown with equally real Bootsy Collins

In real life, Collins has recounted how at first he adored Brown as the father he never had, then, in light of subsequent experiences, decided fathers were on the whole overrated.
Collins’ story, willfully excluded in the film, shows that the circuit of Brown’s creativity did not work in one direction: he drew enormous amounts from the young, energetic performers he was so good at attracting, but through his inability to collaborate, invariably forced to move on.

But at least there was a Bobby Byrd, and he did stay in the band longer than most. The way the film treats Brown’s wife, DeeDee, moves much closer to actual deception. For one thing, the movie leaves the distinct impression that Brown had one early marriage, then moved on to the woman with whom he spent the rest of his life (In reality, Brown was married four times.). But more troubling is the film deals with Brown’s violence toward women, unavoidable since it erupted very publicly at various points in his career.
Get on Up  deals with the subject in a pair of very deceptive scenes. In one, Brown generously, if maybe a bit ostentatiously, hands out silver dollars for Christmas in front of the impressive house he’s acquired, spies a white neighbor looking down DeeDee’s low-cut elf suit. When they go in the house, a confused and upset Brown hits DeeDee, who we then see weeping on the floor. In a paired scene, however, Brown once again berates DeeDee for looking too sexy and available at a party and seems on the verge of striking her again. Instead she deflects him with a joke, and they begin a pre-coital dance on the bed.
Loyal wife DeeDee Brown (Jill Scott) holds James Brown (Chadwick Boseman)

Without any actual lies, we are given the emotional impression that the blows were an exceptional occurrence, one that was resolved as Brown and his marriage matured. The reality was more wives and more beatings.

The young British screenwriting duo Jez and John Henry Butterworth (brothers) have crafted an unusual, ever-shifting chronology that easily facilitates such sleights of hand. There are many admirable things about this structure, for one thing it lends a fresh feel to the storytelling. They don’t have to belabor the connections between early life and later behavior that quickly become tiresome in the usual bio-pic. The Butterworths make the admirable discovery that you can make the same point more powerfully and economically simply by juxtaposing the two points in time.

The Butterworths, who won a Writers’ Guild award for their screenplay about the Valerie Plame Wilson affair, Fair Game,  seem to have picked up a thing or two in their time with spies about the strategic deployment of information. When a simple shift in focus or tone can convey the intended impression, there is no need for the uncouthness of a lie. Whether they learned from Karl Rove that facts are simply what you need at the moment, or from Quentin Tarantino that they are simply an element of historical wish-enactment, postmodern cinema takes only the most passing interest in reality.

In that it resembles the old cinema: In any case, Get On Up is, righteously enough, more interested in Brown's musical legacy than his personal life. The film, rated PG13, is clearly intended to win over the several generations since James Brown held the world stage and helped invent rock and roll. Where Get On Up shines is in tracing the origins of the Brown’s music, and explaining non-didactically, what made it so different, and most of all, recreating the astounding performances which made his name.

In many ways James Brown, of all performers, is perfect for the screen. Known just as much for his stagecraft and, of course, his dancing, as for his actual songs, Get on Up really delivers in the performance scenes. With its extraordinarily engaging star, Chadwick Boseman, recreating the famous Brown moves while he lip-syncs to the actual Brown vocals, we get a sense of all the things that can’t be conveyed on a piece of vinyl, much less some disembodied electronic download. James Brown groupies like producer Mick Jagger, and co-star Dan Aykroyd are finally less interested in the specifics of a tortured life than in passing on an ecstatic and influential sound. They are less biographers in a strict sense than Fishers of Soul-Men.
History is written by the victors

This is hagiography with an infectious beat. And after several hours dancing in the dark in my theater seat, the film did its work. Count me a latter-day convert to the Church of Funk.

I was blind, but now I see. --Grace Lovelace

Friday, August 8, 2014

Film Review | A Summer's Tale

“To watch a film like this, or any Rohmer film, creates a sense of peaceful regard in me. He isn't afraid of losing my attention with too much dialogue, or too little action.” -- Roger Ebert

There are no indications of prurience.” -- Stephen Holden

Eric Rohmer
Much as I love ridiculing the prurience and luxuriant boredom of Eric Rohmer’s Moral Tales, at this point I’m concerned no one will know what I'm making fun of. (For example, I like to say 1969’s My Night at Maud’s was outlawed as torture along with waterboarding under the Obama administration because of its excruciatingly slow pace.) A must-see for the culturally informed in the sixties and seventies, Rohmer's low-key films sort of fell out of fashion over the ensuing decades. Indeed Rohmer's 1996 effort, A Summer's Tale has only now found American distribution, four years after his death and nearly twenty after its release in France.

When I made my pilgrimage to Santa Monica, the closest place for viewing arty French films, there were indications that in spite of this recent release, Rohmer doesn't have much of a future popular audience-wise. There were a smattering of senior francophiles with their accoutrement: oxygen tanks, walkers, cravats. I was the youngest by far in the theater, and that's not young. What were the chances my internet audience would have any interest in an increasingly obscure French filmmaker?

But then a vision of the highly successful Criterion video campaign appeared before me.
Claire's Knee (1970)

You see, I know just how successful these slick, suggestive images were in moving the merchandise because I worked in a video store for a time in the late eighties. We carried a pretty large selection of foreign films, but the Rohmer films were almost always rented out. And not by the serious middle aged people who occasionally took out Rashomon  or Persona; no, these films were going out to young men, droves of them.
Self-explanatory, 1972
After I watched a few of his films, particularly his breakthrough film, the interminable aforementioned My Night at Maud’s (1969), I was forced to confront the unbelievable paradox of his video popularity. Talk about bait and switch: In Maud, this engineer/former seminary student goes around debating fine point of theology for 105 minute, which even though I just looked it up on imdb is hard to believe. It seems so much longer.
Oh, I think there are a couple girls who might take off some clothes (not too many!)  whilst discussing the holy ghost. For a child born in sixties southern California, this was profoundly foreign and off-putting. It's possible I left my body a few times. And I’m not the only one. To quote from the Wikipedia entry on Rohmer: "His style was famously criticised by Gene Hackman's character in the 1975 film Night Moves who describes viewing Rohmer's films as "kind of like watching paint dry.”
The infamous My Night at Maud's

After I saw a few of Rohmer's films, I felt it my duty as a responsible video store employee to inform these young men what they were paying for. “You know this movie is in black and white, right? And it has a lot of talking. . .in French!” In return for my vigilance I got nothing but horrified looks, looks that declared, "I'm all about art," And "Back off!" So after a few attempts, I abandoned my post as consumer watchdog. From now on, it was their funeral.

My (Mild) Conversion

I assume this aspect of Rohmer's career in video rentals was curtailed with the advent of readily available internet pornography, From now on, there would be no need to sublimate in the foreign film section (correction: from the looks of it, some persists on Netflix.) The video stores themselves have disappeared, for that matter.
Yet the rare longevity of Rohmer's film career attests he had something to offer.

He really did have a remarkable enduring career. Part of the French New Wave, he edited Cahiers du Cinema in the years when Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut worked as film critics on the magazine. In fact, one of his first short films was made in collaboration with Godard, and Truffaut funded  My Night at Maud’s. Remarkably, since their style seem very dissimilar, he wrote the first book on Hitchcock. But nothing is more striking about his life as a filmmaker than its simple duration.
Eric Rohmer

Rohmer made films for an astonishing 50 years. And when you compare him to the few directors of comparable longevity--Woody Allen springs to mind--he appears even more impressive. Unlike Allen, he has actually improved with age. I think they call it maturing, and it’s something of a miracle wherever you find it.

Rohmer tended to make films in large thematic groupings: the “Six Moral Tales” which made his name; his mid-period “Comedies and Proverbs”; and the late “Tales of the Four Seasons” (by far my favorite). Like Shakespeare’s final plays, Rohmer’s show a shift, or rather, a broadening in perspective.

Is it possible for divine intervention to work itself out through the hassles and delays of foreign film distribution? Because the nearly twenty year delay before A Summer’s Tale was released in the U.S. enhances its low-key charms considerably. There are no cell-phones or computers; the beautiful young people who populate its shores seem like messengers from a simpler era, forced to deal with each other directly without any kind of social media to take the edge off the boredom and drift of actual interaction.
A Summer's Tale takes place in Dinard, a tourist town on the coast of Brittany. Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), a young mathematician who also happens to be a gifted musician, wiles away a few weeks in a borrowed room, waiting for a girl, Lena, a girl he was tenuously involved with, who may or may not show up (She is largely absent from the film, although she makes a brief appearance toward the end, pretty in her bikini but almost as unavailable in the flesh and she was off-stage.)  Although withdrawn and self-conscious, he strikes up an inpromptu friendship with a waitress  named Margot (Amanda Langlet) (who turns out to have a PhD in ethnography) and begins yet another sexual flirtation with the intense, demanding Solène (Gwenaelle Simon).

Gaspard is amusingly unmoored, drawn to whichever of these wildly disparate woman pays him attention in the moment (though this being Eric Rohmer, they are similar inl looking superb in bikinis). Rohmer enjoys playing off the fact that this self-serious, intellectual young man is stupidly at the mercy of the free-floating sexual energy surrounding him in this ancient beach town. The movie is partly a story of Gaspard maturing to the point that he could make a decent partner to the clear front runner among his prospective partners: Margot, the intellectual waitress who, in stark contrast with Gaspard, is both interested and available to everyone (she explains this as part of her role as an ethnographer), especially people unlike herself.

As I made my way out of the theater I heard one of the aging Francophiles in attendance. “I just wanted to shake that young man. I mean, they’re all pretty, but one of those girls is an real pearl!” There are, in fact, all kinds of indications that she is “the one,” including that, somewhat unusually for Rohmer, she is a returning player. She played a pivotal part as Pauline in a film from an earlier series, Pauline at the Beach (1983).
young amanda.jpg
Amanda Langlet, Pauline at the Beach

In that film she was the ingenue Pauline, watching her more experienced aunt juggle a number of men. By A Summer's Tale she is the more seasoned character, gently schooling Gaspard in the things that endure and choices that should be made.
older amanda.jpg
Amanda Langlet, A Summer's Tale

She seems to be interested in him; the general drift of the film is that they will end up together at some point, “in winter, the best season,” as Margot suggests as one point. But she, like Rohmer himself, seems in no hurry. In stark contrast to his contemporaries like Woody Allen, or his old Cahiers du Cinema colleague Jean-Luc Godard, there is nary a trace of misogyny or misanthropy in the "Seasons" films. He has attained a kind of serenity and seems to simply enjoy the play of the water, the sun, and the free-floating sexual energy. To put it in Californian, he's totally mellow.

When I first viewed the films of Eric Rohmer they struck me as willfully stripped down and boring, but by the time I got to this sea-side film, twenty years later, it struck me as almost visionary in its simplicity. There are no cell-phones (uncommon at that time) or even computers (Rohmer's own call); as usual, Rohmer does not use non-ambient music; there is a lot of talking, walking, and sunning. This isn't that long ago, but through rapid acceleration of computer culture and through Rohmer's own luddite sensibility, they might as well be envoys from the ancient Bretons studied by Margot.

Memorable as was for me, good luck finding the film in its limited re-release. You'll have a much easier time finding the recent work of his compatriot Luc Besson, Lucy, in which Scarlett Johansson finally fuses with the computer once and for all.

--Grace Lovelace

Friday, July 18, 2014

Boyhood and the Sublime


“I cannot remember when a film has moved me more or captured so well all the colors and shadings of the personal, yet universal process of becoming.” Rhapsodic as Betsy Sharkey gets in her review of Richard Linklater's new film, Boyhood, she's far from alone. Even the normally somewhat flinty Manohla Dargis gushes, “It’s a model of cinematic realism,”  in the New York Times. “Even after seeing the film three times, I haven’t fully figured out why it has maintained such a hold on me, and why I’m eager to see it again.” The film seems to be a sort of party for critics, inviting their purplest prose.

What is this, Tolstoy?
Hey,  Linklater brought it up. But let’s hold that thought for a bit.
By now you’ve probably heard of the innovative idea behind Boyhood: film a family drama over the course of twelve years. As Linklater has put it in interviews, time itself becomes a character (or in other interviews, a collaborator). But then, Linklater has always been fortunate in his collaborators.

Now if you are making a movie about aging, in real time, your lead actress is going to be the trickiest part. Get Nicole Kidman (or almost any mainstream actress) from the ages of 31 to 43 and you’re going to see: almost nothing. Maybe a few Botox side-effects. But Linklater, in the first of many uncanny moves on this picture, chose the exception. One of our most fearless and physical actresses, Patricia Arquette has actually allowed time to do its business and thus is able to play an aging single mother, with untold stresses, convincingly.
She brings other strengths as well. Arquette has always been able to project a lot, including intelligence and determination. That’s key here, since she plays a woman who, stuck in a dead-end job with two small kids, manages to put herself through college and eventually becomes a psychology professor.
She’s also always shown a remarkable ability to project emotion without words. Consider Beyond Rangoon(1995) where she spoke maybe two words, but was able to hold our attention, or the television show she starred on from 2005 to 2011, Medium , where she played a psychic. The woman has access to wordless realms, which is an important counterbalance when it comes to Linklater, who can occasionally, let’s face it,  run to the gabby.

Linklater has said he was more or less just kicking the idea around until he met six-year-old Ellar Coltrane, the son of a musician he followed on the Austin scene. Coltrane goes from dreamy child to dreamy adult, with a few intriguing awkward years in between. Like Arquette, he’s charismatic without being especially verbal, which is another nice restraint for Linklater. ( The critics are almost unanimously praising what goes unsaid in the film.) It also doesn’t hurt that as an eighteen-year-old. Coltrane suggests a combination of River Phoenix and James Dean.
Speaking of imminent doom, with its welcome lack of a conventional storyline, Boyhood must provide something in its place.  In a number of scenes Linklater dangles what all our narrative-senses alert us are extremely dangerous situations: junior high kids drink beer in an empty house and play throwing Chinese stars (those round, jagged hatchet-things). An alcoholic stepfather drives the kids around while plastered, a teenager drives toward his graduation party while sipping from a flask. Shotguns are wielded.These scenes hold our attention, albeit in a somewhat cheap way, while the movie does its work on a deeper level. "Nothing happens"-but rest assured that time will pluck every rose.
Boyhood has frequently been compared to the 7 Up series,  the British documentary which tracks a group of schoolchildren over an even longer period of time. But in place of the endless fascinations of a varied group of real people, Linklater is working with the relatively confined canvas of one fictional American family. The challenge is to provide enough narrative charms to propel the story forward while retaining focus mainly on the passage of time itself rather than some invented story.

Linklater draws on all the tricks he’s developed over his two decades of work; indeed, Boyhood echoes individual Linklater films at various points, especially as Mason, the boy of the title, heads toward adolescence.  Linklater has always been our most important poet of teenage angst and possibility. As Mason, the boy of the title, begins to make his rounds through Texas coffee shops, taking drugs and philosophizing with his stunning girlfriend, we experience the ghosts of Linklater past: from Slacker to the Before Sunrise series.

If to me there is an essential immaturity to Linklater’s vision, there’s no denying he’s done dazzling work here. When an aged Patricia Arquette weeps at the kitchen table contemplating Mason's departure to college, the jokes she makes about her imminent death (“Haven’t you skipped over about 40 years, Mom?,” Mason joshes back) work on a conventional "empty nest" level about pathetic middle aged women. But Arquette is so committed, and her physical aging so achingly evident, that we also seem to be experiencing the Sublime, that is, to confront our own oblivion, all that we cannot comprehend.

By somehow packing an enormous amount of raw life into his novels, Tolstoy expanded the possibilities of the realistic novel. By the conclusion of Boyhood,  the comparison Linklater himself has invoked doesn’t seem like such a stretch; he really has managed to infuse American filmmaking with some much needed oxygen.

--Grace Lovelace

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Vivian Maier's Loaded Camera

Vivian Maier, self-portrait

Finding Vivian Maier (2013),  directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel.

Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Photos? [American title: The Vivian Maier Mystery] (2013), directed by Jill Nicholls.

                            My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
                            In Corners - till a Day
                            The Owner passed - identified -
                            And carried Me away -
                             --Emily Dickinson
Was this obscure and difficult woman actually, as those who had discovered her boxes of largely undeveloped negatives contend, one of the great photographers of the 20th century? As the photographs from that great cache began to appear on the internet, posted by the young realtor who acquired them at auction, an intense interest immediately took hold, and grew.  People couldn’t get enough of this "secret" photographer. Even as exhibits, reviews and eventually two full-length documentaries on Vivian Maier took shape, she remained in important ways largely inscrutable.

From the moment her photographs first came to light, there were questions about her artistic importance. Was Maier an artist, or a mere hobbyist? While she was beyond such concerns, having died in 2009, the several holders of her photographic legacy (boxes of negatives, prints, and short films), particularly an ambitious young realtor named John Maloof , pushed for her entry in the pantheon.

In an early news profile on a local Chicago news channel (Maier spent much of her working life as photographer and nanny in the city),  Maier’s work is quickly brought into question by what the newscaster calls “art historians and serious collectors.” Stephen Daiter, local gallery owner, opines for the camera, “I call her an excellent student, not a excellent master." (WTTV Chicago, at 7:38 on YouTube video).

Daiter claims her work is too derivative of other photographers to be considered truly top-notch, while John Maloof encountered institutional resistance to her work because, except for one brief period, she didn’t have the resources to develop and print her own work. Question remain about how, and whether, she would have liked her work to be displayed.

A few years later, the Vivian Maier phenomenon had grown to an extent that it demanded a certain level of official respect. Several award-winning documentaries had been released, one by that bastion of official culture, the BBC. Richard B. Woodward, writing for the Washington Post, attempts to convince [himself?] that hers is still a story worth telling, “The film [Finding Vivian Maier]. . .offers testimonials from contemporary masters Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark.” Nonetheless, he makes it clear he considers her a pathetic “unhappy” person, mostly because she didn’t receive public acclaim from her work, and died alone and in poverty.

The ubiquitous discourse of “mastery”  is especially unfortunate given that Maier was born into the servant class, part of a line of illegitimate and unmarried women who moved between maid and factory positions in New York City and their native village in France.

The Vivian Maier mystery includes how the people for whom she worked are able to claim they had no idea she was a photographer at the same time they testify she was always taking photographs. This ambiguous status, which allowed her to be seen and not seen, accounts, in the end, for the remarkable nature of her work. On a less positive note, perhaps, it probably precluded her being appreciated while alive. Her place in the American social strata, something she documented over epochs with her keen photographic eye, was not that of “master."

Vivian Maier’s work is nonetheless reminiscent of several acknowledged twentieth century masters, most strongly, perhaps, the photographer Robert Frank.
From Robert Frank's classic photography book, The Americans

Born only two years apart, Frank,  was almost an exact contemporary of Maier. A Swiss Jew, he was also geographically akin to Maier, who spent much of her childhood in a small village in the French alps. Like Maier, many of Frank’s 1955 photos express alienation from the American scene of the fifties; yet, paradoxically, both seem to require the energizing friction they encountered here to sharpen their vision. Both tend to focus on those on the margins, on the cracks in the American dream.
One of  Vivian Maier's sheets of negatives, New York, early fifties

The differences are just as telling. Frank was already making a good living as a commercial and fashion photographer, when he embarked on his Guggenheim funded American road trip. Jack Kerouac’s introduction continues to pave the way for his most famous work, The Americans. If Frank was prolific, drawing from over 20,000 negatives for his on the roadside book, Maier is even more so. Apparently shooting while the children she tended were at school, and on her weekends off, she amassed over 150,000 negatives, all on a nanny’s salary. Little wonder that many were never developed; she didn’t have the money, nor, for the most part, the space (part of the reason she is considered a lesser talent by most art museums according to her main champion, John Maloof). This is an astonishing life’s work, when we realize she never showed that work publicly, or even to her close associates, the mystery deepens.

This secretiveness is especially puzzling given the quality of the work and the professionalism on display. When Maloof first pored through the negatives he had purchased at auction, he assumed Maier had worked as a photojournalist. Scattered among her work are photos at official functions, political events, movie premieres, not to mention the Chicago riots (one of her charges describes crying and asking if they were going to die before being led home to the suburbs from the riot scene). So clearly she placed herself, at times, in that press milieu; she appears to have taken her place confidently among the press corps, pushed her way to get a good shot. This combination of boldness and some essential reticence or aloneness shows up in her work, as does her utterly unique positioning as both artist and nanny.

nanny slide.jpg

It’s hard not to view "foreign domestic worker” as essential to her perspective. From all reports, she took photos incessantly, to the point where “Vivian and her camera” started to become almost invisible. And unlike a photographer with a more obtrusive presence, like, inevitably, a tall Swiss foreigner in the South, just passing through, Maier is able to use her “invisibility” to get up close and personal with her subjects.

There’s a whole passel of these “it’s just the nanny” photos that get us deep inside various spaces of fifties suburbia, the beach, the yard, the shady streets of a cloistered childhood.  Like Diane Arbus’ early work taken, more or less, under cover as an adjunct in her husband’s portraiture studio, she uses these scenarios for her own advantage at times, revealing a darkness and oddity, one feels sure the person paying for their presence would not have sanctioned.
arbus party.jpg
On of the families Vivian Maier nannied for
Many of the city photos bristle with a sexual energy, largely unremarked by her commentators. Is this some residual concern about the proper role of the nanny?

At other times, Maier clearly moves assertively into people’s personal space, seeming to get off on the confrontational aspect of the photographic act.


Sometimes Maier appears to be cruising for a fight; at others, she’s just cruising. Contemporary commentary on Maier has tended to focus on how unobtrustive and nonthreatening she must have been to get the shots she did; others focus on how the Rolleiflex camera, held at waist level, removed the threat of the camera from the subject’s eyeline. While this analysis makes sense in some of her photos, it wildly misses the mark in some of her other modes, as in the ones I’ve outlined above. 

She has many modes and moods, yet contemporary viewers seem to want to pigeon-hole her as lady-like and retiring. Her photos, and many of the people who knew her, tell a different story.

How could a photographer so engaged with the world fail to share her work with almost anyone? That’s the $100,000 question, but the two recent documentaries on Maier yield only partial answers.

The two films, one produced by the BBC and one by John Maloof, the owner of the biggest archive of Maier photos, are quite different in their approaches. The odd thing about Finding Vivian Maier, the documentary “co-directed” by John Maloof, the owner of the bulk of Maier’s estate, is the extent to which it is about Maloof himself. In this brief film (Finding Vivian Maier, like the BBC film Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Pictures, clocks in at slightly over an hour) we learn about Maloof’s childhood spent scouting out flea-markets with his father; his eagle eye at spotting treasure;the saga of how he came to acquire Maier’s boxes of photos, his tireless work promoting her work, first via the internet and then into the wider (and more profitable) sphere of fine art.
John Maloof, owner of the bulk of Vivian Maier's photographs

Maloof undoubtedly deserves credit for bringing Maier’s work to light; yet does he deserve the amount of credit he has given himself? He’s leveraged his ownership not just into a major business, but to transform himself into an author, editor and documentary film director (he shares credit with Charles Siskel, Gene’s nephew on the documentary ; other endeavors include a book of photographs co-authored with Geoff Dyer and another with Elizabeth Avedon.)

For the most part, critics have given Maloof a pass concerning the extent to which he’s inserted himself into Maier’s story. (One exception: Manohla Dargis's review of Finding Vivian Maier, in which she detects shades of the infomercial, “a feature length advertisement for Mr. Maloof’s commercial venture as principal owner of her work; his name is on the stamp that authenticates her photos.”)

Maloof’s take on Maier’s life is surprisingly sunny; the overall thrust is that she worked out the perfect situation for doing her work unimpeded, and when that work was in danger of being lost, hark! along came Maloof to insure a happy conclusion. In spite of these troubling errors in taste, Maloof’s story, tied as it is to Maier’s own, has its own pull, and his exclusive access to her voluminous films and audio tapes, in addition to the more famous photographs, adds a fascinating dimension.

Luckily, Maloof has not produced the only Maier documentary; nor is he the sole owner of her work. One of the most interesting threads of what I can’t help but think of as “the alternative” BBC documentary, although it was in fact released earlier, concerns the various skirmishes of what has become an extremely valuable property.   There are two other owner’s of her vast number of negatives: Ron Slattery, a sort of goofball enthusiast of found photography who, while he seems to appreciate Maier’s work, doesn't necessarily value it more than the reams of other amateur snapshots he obsessively acquires. He actually posted Maier photos online before Maloof did, but, unsurprising after you see him in the BBC documentary, didn't summon the same effect as the entrepreneurial, marketing savvy John Maloof. In the BBC film, he discusses his plan to give away his Maier photos to strangers on the street. Jeffrey Goldstein, the third stakeholder and the last to acquire her work in bulk, is closer to the Maloofian mold. A building contractor, he saw a business opportunity as the Maier phenomenon began to take off. He took out a large cash loan he couldn’t really afford and, as he recounts in one of the more gripping parts of the BBC film, he met the previous owner in an empty warehouse. Well, empty except for the large bodyguards and guns on hand to insure a smooth exchange of goods.

What Goldsein's story does so neatly highlights (and why, I suspect, it’s left out of the Maloof documentary) is what a valuable property Maier’s work has become. (Goldstein has since quit his other businesses to focus on his highly profitable Maier prints.) In spite of risk and danger in how he acquired his Maier-share, Goldstein says he’s happy he missed the earlier auctions straight from Vivian Maier’s storage contained she was unable to keep up payments on because she was in the hospital. A questionable provenance indeed.

Naturally, given the self-congratulatory tenor of the rest of Maloof’s film, and its near mystical sense of his vocation, there’s no mention of these other stakeholders. The emphasis is on art and advocacy, not money and product placement. Most critics did not view the films side-by-side, since the BBC film was take offline the week Finding Vivian Maier appeared in U.S. theaters. I suspect Maloof's heavy-handed invoking of copyright privileges came into play. In any case, for those who did view it, Who Took Nanny's Photos brings up sticky questions about art and property, the intersections and exclusions between the two.

There are strong suggestions that, at least early on, Maier intended to pursue a professional career as a photographer. When she was a young child, her mother appears to have worked as a maid for a woman from her village named Jeanne Bertrand, who had made a comfortable life as a studio photographer, creating the strong possibility Maier saw photography as a ticket out of manual labor. And there is her early evidence work in the journalistic vein, shooting movie stars and of politicians as they came through town. We see Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey Hepburn at the Chicago premiere of My Fair Lady

Spiro Agnew. She shot Salvador Dali outside the Museum of Modern art, where he, along with Maier, attended an influential photography exhibit.


Pamela Bannos, an academic and photographer, has traced this exhibit to 1952, a year in which Maier’s commitment to photography appears to have deepened. This was the year she shifted from a box camera to the more professional, and much more expensive Rolleiflex. It became her instrument of choice, and she acquired several over the years, a not inconsiderable investment on a nanny’s salary. Indeed, one of her employers remarks in Finding Vivian Maier, in a still somewhat scandalized tone, that the nanny had the camera he wanted.

The details that emerge in both films of her employers and her years as a nanny do much to explain why she never ended up becoming a professional photographer. What these two documentaries reveal is that she seems to have sought out households with good professional contacts. In the fifties and sixties, when she seems to have been in demand as an educated French nanny, she worked for the photography editor of a local paper. She also worked for Phil Donahue for a year in the seventies. These brushes with fame and journalism are too frequent, I think, to be chalked up to coincidence: Maier was putting out professional feelers. But she was a difficult person, and one stuck in a necessarily subordinate role in the household. Her employers had little motivation to arrange outside connections. Even now, confronted with ample evidence, they seem unable to imagine her in a role besides that of their eccentric nanny.

Almost to a one, her former employers seem incredulous at the attention to this forgotten menial. They trot out old anecdotes about her oddity, about how brusque and confrontational she was. We hear how she took too many candies at the department store counter. One of the children she watched tells how humiliating it could be to be with Maier, how sometimes she wanted to slap her and make her put her camera away. Her epic hoarding, another aspect of her too-muchness, is what everyone remembers the most.

Maier, while she carved out a comfortable enough existence in mid-life, was born into a marginal existence, and ended up eating out of dumpsters, in a small apartment crammed with stuff. Maloof’s film, once again, glosses over the extent of the dysfunction. Maier, for years, crammed every available space with newspapers, books and other stuff. The newspapers she saved mostly had to do with assaults and murders of women; and she herself became violent and paranoid if she felt people were tampering with her "valuable" stuff. She lost one job when she became distraught an employers had given a neighbor some newspapers, stored in some forgotten corner of the house, to a neighbor to use in his painting project. “Vivian had become too crazy,” says the former employer. By the end, she'd even covered her bed with stuff, a classic line of no return.

Her work begins to change in the last few decades as well. Photos of trash cans begin to dominate her work, focusing on the excruciating moment of discarding, a moment she eschewed at all cost. (One of the few memories Phil Donahue recounts is that she was always photographing the trash cans, to the ridicule of his four sons.) Newspapers headlines about Nixon, about riots, and other political unrest begin to preoccupy her. In short, there is a decline into semi-madness, with little or no assistance.

The fact that Maier has become the hero of our snap-happy, Instagram-informed digital age raises interesting questions about what on earth we’re doing. Her life and work has much to teach us, not just in its intimate glimpses into forgotten aspects of the last century, but about our lives now, what we value and what we discard.