Now I’ve got the prompt I need to write up another long composite post -- a jumping-up-and-down recommendation for a recent documentary. I loved Finding Vivian Maier (MC-75, NFX), but perhaps I over-identified with the subject, by reason of class status, artistic endeavor, and lifelong obscurity. Vivien Maier was a nanny and caregiver who was also an obsessive photographer, taking hundreds and hundreds of rolls of film, and never showing her pictures to anyone. She was also a hoarder, and a crank verging on mental illness, but she certainly belongs in a pantheon of street photographers that includes Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Weegee, as well as Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark, who comment intimately on her work. John Maloof is the young man who happened to buy at auction a random box of negatives and discovered the work of an unseen artist, just about at the time of her death, which allowed him to corner the market on Maier’s photographs. He co-directs this movie in both celebration and exploitation of this cache of unsung work. The question of whether this benefits or betrays the intention of the artist is one of many interesting themes this film touches upon. You could take it as a slick piece of self-promotion, cashing in on someone who was the antithesis of self-promoter, or you could revel in the revelation of a powerful but unknown body of work. The film follows the successful template of Searching for Sugar Man to tell a crowd-pleasing but troubling story of a lost artist redeemed, in this case posthumously and with many attendant questions of ethics, aesthetics, and value, as well as mysteries of personality and fate. Plus, the photographs are truly great. Find Vivian Maier! – that’s as close as I’ll ever come to an order. Check out some of her work here, then see the movie, and then decide whether you agree it constitutes a genuine discovery.
First Cousin Once Removed (MC-94, NFX) is another great find. I recommend all of Alan Berliner’s films but his latest is not a bad way to start. Instead of focusing on himself or his immediate family, this film follows the progressive dementia of the eponymous relative. That Edwin Honig had been a distinguished poet and translator makes the gradual extinguishing of his light even more poignant. Filmmaking does not get more intimate and thoughtful than this. As sad as the poor man’s decline may be, the film remains respectful, clever, and even witty, a Berliner trademark.
I’ve been planning this round-up of the best recent documentaries since the time of the Oscars, so I’ll start with what was named Best Documentary Feature, 20 Feet from Stardom (MC-83, NFX), which I really enjoyed, as the most ingratiating of the nominees, again following last year’s winner, Sugar Man. This time the artists being rediscovered, celebrated, and given their due, were a number of female back-up singers, mostly from the Motown era. Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and the others were (and are) powerful artists in their own right, but had the special knack of backing up some of the defining acts of the time. Most of these ladies came out of gospel and put the soul in Soul music, but there was only room for one Aretha in the business, so for most of their careers they labored at the distance suggested by the title. Morgan Neville’s film shines the limelight on them, and they more than fill the stage. Might be enraging, if it weren’t so entertaining.
[click through to read commentary on a score of recent recommendable documentaries]