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 - http://www.vivianmaier.com/ - 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.