Finding Vivian Maier

Posted on April 24, 2014 at 6:00 pm

vivian maier posterVivian Maier was a Chicago-area nanny.  Only the children in her care knew how much she loved taking pictures.  After her death, the possessions she had in storage were auctioned off and a man named John Maloof bought some boxes of negatives, thinking he might finds some images for his research about a Chicago neighborhood.  The quality of the photos surprised him.  He put them online and the response was swift and passionate.  Who was this photographer who captured these striking images?  And why had no one ever heard of her?

Maloof bought up the rest of Maier’s negatives and anything else she left behind.  She was something of a hoarder, so there were piles of ephemera as well as rolls of undeveloped film.  Maier’s passion for privacy came up against someone equally obsessive about uncovering her secrets as well as her photographs.   As co-producer of the film, Maloof’s own motives do not get the scrutiny they otherwise might, but it is clear that he has something to gain from promoting her work, and that he is at least aware of the moral dilemma of creating such a public persona for such a private person after she no longer has a say.  Though he is clear about his purpose: “My mission is to put Vivian in the history books.”

It is very rare in this country, where fame and braggadocio are considered virtues and we put people on magazine covers who are just famous for being famous, that gifted people are also private people.  Those who decide to leave the limelight — Salinger, Garbo — are a source of great curiosity for us.  What are they thinking?  And then there are people like Maier and another Chicagoan, Henry Darger (also the subject of a documentary), and James Hampton, who are drawn more by compulsion as well as inspiration.  If there is an intended audience, it is not of this world.

People who knew her, or thought they did, describe her: paradoxical, eccentric, private, loner.  And there is the inevitable snobbery: “Why is a nanny taking all these photos?”  But photographers recognize one of their own.  Joel Mayerowitz, the film’s most engaging voice, says she had “an authentic eye and a real savvy about human nature and photography in the street.” She has human understanding, warmth, playfulness, at least in her photos. An employer said she has “an eye for the bizarre, the grotesque, the incongruous, the folly of humanity.”

Her camera of choice was a twin-lens Rolleiflex, a “great disguise camera…to generate a moment where two presences vibrate together.” Her subjects could look her in the eye while her camera was unobtrusively at her waist. She took up nannying so that she would not have to worry about shelter and she would have an excuse to be out and about. Her charges, now grown, remember her taking them all over, always with her camera, sometimes to rather odd places, like a stockyard.

Some of her secrets are revealed, including her efforts to hide her origins. Some are only indicated. And of course the photographs tell as much about Maier as they do about the people she captured.
As we look at them, though, we realize she captured much of us as well.

Parents should know that this movie includes discussions of abuse, an auto accident, and a sad death.

Family discussion: Which of Maier’s images is your favorite and why? Should her photos be made public after her death even though she kept them secret while she was alive?

If you like this, try: Martha & Ethel and Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens and the book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

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Two Film Noir Classics Now Free Streaming

Posted on January 31, 2014 at 11:59 am

“Film Noir” (“black films”) usually refers to the stylized dark crime films of the 1940’s, usually made by German directors who came to the United States to escape the Nazis.  Their cynicism, sense of dread and loss, and themes of betrayal, obsession, and sin gave their stories of crime and mystery an archetypal feeling.  Two of the best can now be seen for free.

A neglected gem from Orson Welles, “The Stranger” is the story of an investigator (Edward G. Robinson) who is tracking down a Nazi war criminal (Welles), now living a quiet life as a professor and married to a woman (Loretta Young) who knows nothing of his past.  The climax in a church belfry tower is brilliantly staged.

Edward G. Robinson also appears in the less characteristic role of a mild-mannered professor who gets caught up in a web of deception and betrayal in “The Woman in the Window.”  The ending is a disappointment, but the direction by Fritz Lang is a masterpiece of noir mood.

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Contest: ‘Prime Suspect’ Complete Series

Posted on July 28, 2010 at 8:00 am

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This is really special. I have one fabulous complete set of the brilliant “Prime Suspect” series from the BBC and PBS, starring Helen Mirren as police detective Jane Tennison. USA Today called it “A masterpiece” and “A perfect marriage of astoundingly talented actress and brilliantly conceived character.” The Washington Post raved, “One of the great character creations of our time.” It is a gritty drama about a dedicated woman who faces challenges to her authority inside the department as well as the challenges in solving crimes outside. Mirren is unforgettable as Tennison. You might not want to work for her but if someone happened to someone you cared about, you’d want her on the case. The show has won a basketful of awards including Emmys, Golden Globes, and the prestigious Peabody.

Send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com and tell me which Helen Mirren role is your favorite. I will select a winner at random one week from today. Good luck!

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Murder Mystery Classics on Film

Posted on September 2, 2009 at 8:00 am

TCM has come out with a terrific collection of four of the all-time best classic murder mystery movies, the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Murder Mysteries, featuring:

“The Maltese Falcon” Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor are after the item in the title, a jewel-encrusted sculpture. Double and triple cross has never been better or more entertainingly portrayed. An indispensable film, number 23 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American films of all time.

“The Big Sleep” William Faulker worked on the screenply but the oppressive gothic overtone of the narration is straight from the Raymond Chandler novel in this story so filled with corruption and plot twists that when director Howard Hawks wrote to Chandler to ask him who had committed one of the murders and he admitted that even he didn’t know. The repartee between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart sizzles.

“Dial M for Murder” One of the nastiest plots ever put on screen, this claustrophobic thriller stars Grace Kelly and Ray Milland. It was originally shot by Alfred Hitchcock in 3D and you can almost feel Kelly’s desperate hand reaching out of the screen — the hand holding those very sharp scissors.

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“The Postman Always Rings Twice” The camera is in love with Lana Turner in this movie, made when she was at her most delectably seductive. Poor drifter John Garfield doesn’t have a chance in this Tay Garnett-directed version of the James M. Cain novel about the plot to kill an inconvenient husband. One mystery? The meaning of the title, which is not explained in the book and which has provoked some interesting theories, one of which is mentioned in the movie.

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For Your Netflix Queue Movie Mom’s Top Picks for Families

The Uninvited (1944)

Posted on February 11, 2009 at 7:35 am

The new release called “The Uninvited,” based on a Korean horror film, reminded me of the unrelated (but very spooky) 1944 movie of the same name, starring one of my favorites, Ray Milland.
The original The Uninvited is the story of a brother and sister (Milland and “The Philadelphia Story’s” Ruth Hussey) who move into a mysterious house on the English coast. A series of eerie clues lead them to a story involving a woman who once lived in the house and her young daughter Stella (Gail Russell), now grown up, who still lives nearby.
This is not a horror film but a psychological drama with mystery, romance, and ghosts. When I first saw it as a teenager, I was especially intrigued because it had a rare screen appearance by stage actress Cornelia Otis Skinner, co-author of a book I loved, Our Hearts Were Young And Gay: An Unforgettable Comic Chronicle of Innocents Abroad in the 1920s. It also introduced a song that has become a standard, “Stella by Starlight.”
I watched it again recently and found it still one of my very favorite ghost stories, with appealing characters and very satisfying conclusions to both the romance and the mystery. Fans of “Rebecca” will love this one, so if you’re looking for a good, old-fashioned, non-gory ghost story, this is one of the best.

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