Saturday, January 17, 2015


There's an attempt here to play up the idea of eccentricity: if a woman is single and doesn’t appear to want to marry, if she travels alone to far off places, if she travels down back alleys and to stockyards, if she wants a lock for her door, if she collects newspapers, if she takes photos of an injured person instead of standing around gawking like everyone else, if she isn’t freely open about her past, if she opts not to tell a shop-owner her name, she is deemed an oddity. And yet, I wonder, were a man to behave in the way she did, would he be called such an eccentric? Are any of those actions really so extremely erratic and bizarre?

While John Maloof claims in his film to want to make known to the world Vivian Maier’s photography, there is a queasy quality, a sort of TV tabloid element, permeating the whole endeavor, and the result is as similarly shallow as any episode of Hard Copy. Maier, as a subject, is an object to be poked and prodded and dissected; every small action or life detail that can be discovered is taken and exploded into suggestive significance. And people who clearly didn’t know her – who, for the most part, seem to think of her as a bizarre object themselves, and who seem to be quite pleased to be at the center of some attention – are paraded forth for comment.

And as pleased as the interviewees are to be on film, Maloof, himself, so constantly references his own purportedly solitary efforts to champion Maier, it is difficult to see much story here beyond his own self-interest (and as this NYT piece indicates, Maloof’s proprietary claim on Maier is dubious at best).

It is in spite of the film itself that we get glimpses of the complex human being that Maier must have been, and in those glimpses and hints, we must affirm that the irreducible complexity of Maier cannot be violated by the prods of petty filmmaking. She will not be reduced to “odd,” “eccentric,” “reclusive”; she cannot be contained by words like “spinster” or “nanny.” Her person remains hers and hers alone, locked, whole, dignified.

What remains, what transcends the film’s leering attempts at story-telling, is her photography. The images she captured invite us to engage in looking at the world in fresh ways – at beauty, tragedy, comedy, ugliness in unexpected places. And in this new looking, we turn with her, at her side, as fellow human beings, to look at the world she saw. I know nothing about her - and that is as it should be – but I am so grateful to be enriched by her eyes.

NOTE: It would be hypocritical of me not to acknowledge that I owe gratitude to John Maloof for bringing Maier to my attention in the first place: had he not made this film, I am not at all sure I would have heard of her at all. And it is on the website he curates - - where her photography is most extensively accessible online. I am torn: I must be grateful for the film and yet its sensibilities are galling in the extreme. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Missing Picture, a film by Rithy Panh (2013)

"How do you revolt when all you've got are black clothes and a spoon?"

How indeed, when everything is stripped from you, is there space for anything but survival - and in the surviving, what is left but grief, guilt, loss? But here, now, Rithy Panh stages his revolt, as the only means to continue living. Here, using crude clay, as if using the very stuff of his being and of the flesh of those he buried, Panh builds images of what he lost - and builds it on his own terms.

Where the Khmer Rouge had seized photos to destroy the threat of the personal and of the individual and created new films to promote political ideology and lying glory, Panh seizes images in return, taking such filmed ideology, and frames it, transforms it: adding his clay figures -much more powerful figures than the clapping, smiling Pol Pot - adding his narration - much more powerful than the screaming of slogans - and reclaims his past, his color - not black but pink, yellow, and red - his family, his story, himself. The crude clay speaks while the black and white film of the regime merely mumbles incoherently.

Still, it would be a mistake to pretend Panh is not a haunted man. There is no healing, not really, not fully, even in such powerful artistic revolt. "It's not a picture of loved ones I seek, I want to touch them. Their voice is missing," he says.

Even his own voice, in the boy he was, is lost to himself: "It's the boy; he seeks me out. He wants to speak to me, but words are hard to find."

The words, the memories, the images are hard to find, and even "Mourning is difficult. There is no end to the burial. . . . There is the blood drenched earth. Their flesh is mine, so we are together."

And so the film ends, with the burial of a clay figure - buried, being buried, being buried - and it is a figure, a picture, I cannot easily forget.