That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

Finding Vivian Maier & Only Lovers Left Alive

Saturday, June 21st, 2014 7:11 am—Film

Finding Vivian Maier (USA 2014, Documentary), Writer/Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

Only Lovers Left Alive (UK/Germany/Greece 2013, Drama/Horror/Romance), Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch

I wasn’t planning to write a joint review of Finding Vivian Maier and Only Lovers Left Alive. But I saw them both in the last few weeks (at the marvellous Mayfair Theatre), and when I got to thinking I should write about one, the parallels between the two started seeping through. So here we are.

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about the late Vivian Maier, who was a nanny and, as it turns out, a deeply gifted street photographer. Much like many great artists, her work wasn’t appreciated until after her death in 2007, by which time historian John Maloof had stumbled upon some of her many film negatives at a Chicago auction and promptly set about trying to uncover her genius, not to mention her secrets. The final tally for Maier’s negatives is 100,000+, most of which she herself never printed. Maloof’s documentary is an exploration of “the mystery woman” behind the images she coveted and shot, but rarely shared with anyone else.

There’s a lot to observe and ponder in Finding Vivian Maier, but what had the most lasting impact for me was the idea that we never really know who’s walking among us. We can only guess at the stories of each person we pass, on any given day, and most of the time we don’t bother to try—even when it comes to people we interact with regularly.

Maier was definitely among the hidden gems that slipped unnoticed through the cracks (albeit a little rough and cloudy). Thanks to Finding Vivian Maier, we get a few snapshots of her story, a fascinating tale that was likely very lonely, maybe even brutal at times. But we never quite get a full glimpse behind the curtain, largely because of how reclusive Maier was.

It was this example of someone not wanting to be exposed, this idea of people who remain largely unknown to those around them, that prompted me to pair Finding Vivian Maier with Only Lovers Left Alive. This isn’t to equate Vivian Maier with vampires—not at all. It’s just that both films present interesting characters who hide themselves in plain sight, walking among us without ever betraying who (or what) they really are. And who thrive, even survive, off capturing people’s essence—their spirit, their blood—without their consent and usually without even their knowledge.

In Only Lovers Left Alive, vampires tend to feast off blood acquired in bottles from doctors. No one is bitten or killed, and the unwitting donors need not know it ever happened. It’s a highly civilized approach in a world where culture and civility are going down the drain, much to the protagonist’s despair. Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a centuries’ old vampire, is in a deep depression over rampant “zombie-ism”—his word for the current state of humanity, wherein people wander about thoughtlessly, mistreating the world around them, “contaminating their own blood, let alone their water.”

Adam is married to Eve (Tilda Swinton), who is also a vampire, although you wouldn’t necessarily know this about the couple, from the outset. Both Adam and Eve are awfully pale and seem to shun daylight, but it’s awhile before they start guzzling blood and baring fangs. He lives in Detroit, she in Tangiers, and they never explain why (delightfully avoiding exposition). But one can imagine that if marriage lasted centuries rather than decades, it might be nice to have a little room to roam now and then.

The story gets going, as much as it ever does, when Eve travels to Detroit to visit her morose husband (via two night flights, of course). It gets another bite of energy when Eve’s troublesome sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shows up and interrupts the lovebirds’ relatively happy reunion.

It has to be said: Only Lovers Left Alive runs a little thin on plot. But writer/director Jim Jarmusch manages to thicken it anyway with intricate set design, a heady soundtrack and impeccable performances, capturing the sense of eternity Adam and Eve dwell in, without making it boring to watch. His film oozes atmosphere and artfulness; its power is largely in the telling, and Jarmusch tells it very beautifully.

Adam and Eve present the most believable 21st Century vampires I can think of. Deeply immersed in culture, they revel in art, basking in music and literature, coveting antique instruments and mastering multiple languages. They carry the massive sense of history, and perspective on human (mis)behaviour, that any being would, had it lived as long as these two.

I’ll admit the film’s ending is a bit bleak; without giving it away, I found it hard not to interpret the final moments as a relinquishment of hope and faith. (Let’s call the film “Good ‘til the last bite.”) But Only Lovers Left Alive is also full of humorous reflections and clever cultural references, including a fun running joke about Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).

The uber-culturalism in Only Lovers Left Alive brings me back to my comparison with Finding Vivian Maier. Both films are devoted to art, raising it above all else. Adam and Eve seem to exist for art as much as for each other. (As my pal MF says, art is the only currency they value.) With Finding Vivian Maier, I sometimes got the same sense, from the filmmakers as well as their subject.

Maloof, who frequently appears in the documentary as a talking head, proceeds with his film even though many of the featured interviewees express their doubt as to whether Maier would have wanted to be exposed so publicly. That did make me question whether it was right to produce the documentary. But Maier may well have understood the passion to pursue one’s art at any cost. She was an obsessive photographer who took candids all the time, even when the subjects didn’t seem to appreciate being photographed, and even if it meant neglecting the children she was paid to care for. One interviewee recounts the time a former charge had a fairly serious accident in front of Maier, and instead of helping, Maier stood by and snapped photos.

Finding Vivian Maier gets even darker than that. The film touches on allegations that Maier physically abused some of the children she looked after. True, it also presents statements from former charges who appear to have cared for Maier very much, even into their adulthood, and suggests that she herself must have been “traumatized” in childhood. But none of that excuses child abuse, and I was disturbed by how easily the filmmakers moved away from the allegations.

In many ways, Finding Vivian Maier serves to introduce a selection of possible stories, without fully delving into any: the concept of art and what qualifies as such; childhood trauma and abuse; mental illness; and who Vivian Maier really was. But perhaps that’s as it should be.

One of the interviewees, a shopkeeper whose store Maier frequented, remarks that the story of the photographer and her desire to keep her photographs secret is much more fascinating than the photos themselves (as impressive as they are). I agree, and in some ways, the film’s unanswered questions about Maier are a bit frustrating. But given her desire for secrecy, it’s probably best that so much is left unsaid.

And in the end, the film does manage to provide an insightful glimpse into an intriguing life that was nearly overlooked—not to mention an incredible art collection. For that reason alone, Finding Vivian Maier is more than worthwhile. As Only Lovers Left Alive makes clear, art is invaluable and utterly deserving of our appreciation. After all, it easily outlasts each of us.

*            *            *

Thanks to TS for recommending Finding Vivian Maier (yet another interesting film!). For more on Vivian Maier, visit Incidentally, there’s another documentary on the artist, BBC’s The Vivian Maier Mystery.

And here’s another review of Only Lovers Left Alive, by my pal Patrick Mullen over at Cinemablographer.

2 Responses

  1. Yaritza Tanner

    Good reviews! And, BTW, the BBC Vivian Maier film is unsung and really great! Great that you mentioned it.

  2. amanda

    Thanks, Yaritza! Glad you found my blog. 🙂 I haven’t seen the BBC doc, but have read good things. Would be interesting to see another take on Maier.

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