Wow. What a documentary. Cancel your planned trip to every other film. Finding Vivian Maier proves what I had always suspected. “Truth is stranger than fiction” is a nonsense saw. When “truth” is this strange, you are magically, transportedly unsure what is true and what fictive or un-determinable. Isn’t that the power and point of Citizen Kane, the greatest “truth”-based film of all? It is certainly the spell of this doc about a nanny revealed, after her death, to have been a world-class photographer.
Be grateful for geeks who receive gifts. John Maloof, who co-directed with Charlie Siskel, is the pop-eyed proselyte who found the material. The auction-house negatives Maloof bought on a whim, plus the crate of film rolls he later chased down in a Maier-connected house, proved a treasury of street scenes: portraits of the dispossessed, eye-grabbing urban vistas, startling Dadaist tableaux trouvés …
The gallery shows began and so did Maloof’s hunt. Who was this woman? Was she just the French-extracted New Yorker she appeared to be: a gauche, pathologically private spinster who took nanny and housekeeper jobs? Ex-employers line up in turn for interview, like willing firing squad victims. Blink; tell all; bang, you’re off; though some come back for more, wanting one more chew on the mystery bullet.
Maier toted her camera round town with the kids in tow. The kids weren’t a priority – the photo gigs were – and one child, now grown up, recalls darker nannying transgressions. As the portrait builds, so do the bewitching perplexities, including a French accent denounced by one “expert” as fake. All we know for certain is the power of the picture-taking. The life intrigues; the art endures. To cite another, surer saw: Ars longa, vita brevis.