Vivian Maier was a troubled, intensely private European-born eccentric who made her living as a nanny. Her candid, perspicacious street photography documents American urban experience from the Fifties through the Seventies, specifically varieties of difference, the shaping effect of environment, and how life’s wear and tear show up on faces and physiques.
Finding Vivian Maier
John Maloof accidentally discovered Maier’s haunting, often riveting body of work in 2007 when he attended an auction in search of photo negatives for an archival project. He hauled home the contents of the boxes he bought and found thousands of feet of undeveloped film among the clothes, costume jewelry, and paper detritus. Chance has made him Maier’s executor. Finding Vivian Maier, an inexpertly made documentary co-directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, details the photographer’s personal life and creative output. For Maloof, apart from determining who Maier was, the story’s central mystery is why she produced these extraordinary images in such abundance but never sought to exhibit them in public. Dwelling on this unimportant question is the film’s great, maddening misstep. To do so presumes that making pictures is an empty act, and that self-expression isn’t meaningful unless its accomplishment is put on display.
The filmmakers interview some of Maier’s employers and charges, and all attest to the constant presence of a camera slung from her neck. She habitually took the children on outings to varied, sometimes inappropriate environments where they’d walk and explore for hours. Maier used a Rolleiflex, a camera that requires the user to look down into its viewfinder rather than raise the camera up to the eye. This meant that Maier shot people from below, granting them a kind of looming dignity. It also allowed for a more profound engagement since she could set up her shot while maintaining eye contact with her subjects. As a result, all of her portraits, including those of herself, are characterized by a direct, unflinching, respectful regard rather than a furtive one.
One of Maier’s great achievements, in addition to virtuosity of form and subject, was to fashion a lifestyle around her commitment to photography. She chose child-minding because it allowed her to move around freely all day. And while she cared for children, home and hearth were not what she made a commitment to. Therefore it was possible for her to engage fully with the creativity of her preferred vocation.
By contrast, in Le Week-End, director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi explore how far a life can stray from the values and parameters initially set out. The third and best of a superlative triptych that began with The Mother in 2003 and continued with Venus in 2006, Le Week-End also focuses on a personal reckoning that arises from growing old. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are a married couple in their sixties. They mark their 30th anniversary by returning to Paris; when they find the hotel where they spent their honeymoon to be meager and dismal, Nick is willing to make the best of it, while Meg impulsively bolts. Each response encapsulates their respective stances toward their mutually unsatisfying union.
The pair soon take up residence in a luxurious hotel and treat their elegant rooms like a bunker, festooning and defacing its walls with images and newspaper clippings drawn from art and history. Faced with an uncertain future, they scour former ideals and influences for evidence of where they both went wrong. They also embark on a spree of thievery, mischief, and merrymaking, attempting either to reconnect with their anarchic youth or inject their relationship with a renewed sense of excitement. Nick sees marriage as his only achievement, while Meg rages that it has precluded personal accomplishment altogether.
Another source of Nick’s malaise is the nudge he’s received from his college toward early retirement. His professorship may be dispiriting but its unceremonious ending would be worse. Middle-class concerns now dominate his life. He worries about his house, their feckless son, and money. By chance, he and Meg encounter Nick’s former Cambridge classmate Elliot (Jeff Goldblum), a sellout now enjoying greater financial and social success. During a dinner party, the men recall their past goals. Elliot is optimistic—perhaps due to solvency—that they can still effect the cultural change they sought as students. But Nick and Meg’s lives suggest that the progress of maturity is a perpetual seesawing between recapturing the youthful belief that society is yours to change and accepting the possibility that you’re unavoidably at its mercy.
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
In their non-narrative 16mm feature A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell investigate what an ideal human environment might look like if we stepped back from civilization and started over. The film follows musician Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe as he moves from a commune in pastoral Estonia, to a remote Finnish wilderness, and finally to a cave-like bar in Norway featuring a death-metal band with whom he performs. The locations are never identified in the film, perhaps because the emphasis is not on specific places but on how they reflect different interior states and facilitate forms of transcendence. (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez investigate similar ideas in Manakamana by filming Nepalese pilgrims exclusively within the cable car taking them up to or down from a hilltop shrine.)
Each of the living situations depicted in Rivers and Russell’s film suggests how people might lead a more fulfilling existence. In Estonia, the collective Lowe has joined lives with nature, holding negotiations over shared activities and evaluating ideas in group conversations. The individual consults the whole. The Finnish passage is an exploration of solitude featuring Lowe on a lake and in the woods, silently fending for himself, hunting, fishing, and inhabiting a rustic hut. Here, the individual fulfills the self. In the final, Norway-set section, the directors document both band and audience in a situation that combines the tenets of the previous two sections. The people gathered enjoy an experience that’s both individual and collective in a featureless room wholly defined by the noise generated within its confines. After filming the band’s guttural dirge at length, the camera turns on the audience, alighting on individual faces. The band’s ear-splitting noise is eliminated from the soundtrack for this interlude, though every figure that emerges from the darkness still moves to the music, as if in a trance state. The musicians have conjured up the means for sensation and meditation, but their listeners experience them privately.
We Are the Best!
Lukas Moodysson’s deeply felt We Are the Best!, adapted from his wife Coco’s graphic novel, affirms that the ingredients for personal development and political foment can also be found in as conventional a setting as a 13-year-old girl’s bedroom. Set in 1982 Stockholm, the film sketches the friendship between Klara and Bobo, who use punk rock ideals and music to process the narrow thinking, variable parenting, inconsistent authority, and gender bias they encounter in their lives. The action unfolds in a loose series of episodes during which the girls define and give voice to their untested feminist, spiritual, and political ideas. Moodysson isn’t afraid to depict their immaturity—the girls are just as capable of the intolerance and conformism that they condemn their peers and parents for—but does so with sensitivity and without judgment. When classmate Hedvig, ostracized for being a devout Christian, is jeered at during a school talent show for her skilled but prim classical guitar performance, Klara and Bobo invite her to join the band they’re forming because she can play an instrument. But they also insist that she renounce Christianity if she accepts their invitation—although they eventually surmount their initial bias.
Galvanized by their shared love of music, the girls’ bold attitudes and questioning minds, however naïve, indicate that deviating from the norm is easier with the support of others. But if friendship is the film’s linchpin, We Are The Best! also shows music as a uniquely transporting force that promotes personal freedom. Bobo repeatedly shuts her bedroom door and puts on headphones, retreating into a vitalizing mood of her own choosing rather than submitting to her social surroundings. Music also plays a notable role in Le Week-End. At Elliot’s dinner party, Nick meets his friend’s disaffected teenage son, and the two briefly commune over a Nick Drake song. The encounter helps Nick realize he needn’t worry about apathy. Music and ideas aren’t bound by place or time, and their capacity to induce renewed anger or curiosity is infinite. Viewed in these terms, Vivian Maier’s images endure as conduits to new feeling rather than as sources of nostalgia for a lost self.