Friday, February 20, 2015

FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (2013)—The Evening Class Q&A With Charlie Siskel

The story told by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel's documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2013) is intriguingly open-ended, provoking questions not only about the biographical details of a charismatic yet mysterious artist, but also about the nature of art itself. Is art a fundamentally private enterprise that achieves a public only by chance and good fortune? Is it first a communication with oneself that then hazards expression with community? Where does self-preservation and ambition fold into the mix? Does great art supercede the artist who creates it? Finding Vivian Maier is as much a philosophical inquiry into the meaning of art as it is a biographical portrait excavated from the chance purchase by John Maloof of numbered lots at an auction, whose trunks—once opened—revealed the work of a woman speaking to a world not yet poised to listen.

The documentary first came to my attention when it won the John Schlesinger Award at the 2014 edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Alongside numerous nominations, the film likewise won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Miami Film Festival, received Creative Recognition for Best Writing from the International Documentary Association and the 2015 Cinema Eye Honors Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film, and Sunday will reveal whether it takes home the Academy Award® for Best Documentary Feature.

Photo: Adriana M. Barraza / WENN
As part of its ramp-up to Sunday's Academy Awards®, a special screening was given in San Francisco on Thursday, December 18 to an invitation-only audience, and I was honored to introduce the film and engage director Charlie Siskel in conversation afterwards. As Gene Siskel's nephew, Charlie's nomination for an Oscar® bears a measured irony for beating out the popular Roger Ebert tribute Life Itself (2014). After watching the film, I invited each member of the audience to turn to their neighbor and imagine what kind of hidden artistry they had within them, and then invited Charlie Siskel to the stage.

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Michael Guillén: First, let's set up some back story. My understanding is that your co-director John Maloof had discovered Vivian Maier's work in an auction lot, had been working with it, and then decided that a documentary was in order. Through Michael Moore, you were recommended as the person to come in to help with the filmic element of this project. I'm interested in co-directorships and what goes into two people making a film, so can you talk a little bit about what your strategy was with each other to develop this project?

Charlie Siskel: Certainly. So, I got involved as you mentioned when I got a call from Jeff Garlin, who is best known for his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He's a Chicagoan and I grew up in Chicago. I actually grew up in the '70s and the '80s in the town, Highland Park, where Vivian was a nanny, purely a coincidence. No doubt, Vivian was probably in the neighborhood. Looking at hundreds of hours of Super 8 footage, I saw my elementary school, and some of the elementary school teachers who I had not so great memories about. It was an uncanny experience to see the ravines where I grew up. Those ravines were literally in my back yard. So that was all very strange.

I got on the phone with John—this was 3½-4 years ago—and we just started to talk about what he had. Not only did he have over 100,000 photographs, he had hours and hours of Super 8 footage, hours of audio recordings, and he had just started to contact some of the families to shoot some interviews with them. John was not particularly familiar with documentaries and he didn't have a whole lot of references for what kind of film he wanted to make; but, we started to talk about the story. I started to recommend certain films that he should watch and that was sort of the beginning of what turned into a four-year collaboration where we would bounce ideas back and forth about what kind of film we should be making.

You mentioned excavation in your introduction and the visual overhead shot of John sifting through all of the material and laying it out in a grid-like pattern is very much what archaeologists do at a dig site. They create order out of chaos. They take a ruin and impose a certain scientific logic to it. They cordon off areas, create sectors and label things and that seemed like an apt metaphor for what we were trying to do.

It's also a terrible metaphor because the process of understanding another human being is not scientific. We made a conscious choice not to include psychiatrists, psychologists, in the film—my apologies if there are any in the room—but it's just that I think something is lost when you try to reduce a person's life or their story, which is what I'm interested in, to a diagnosis. It seems like a way to end the conversation. In particular, there's a lot we have to learn about approaching one another artfully and thinking of one another's lives the way a novelist approaches a subject.

But to get back to your question, the way that John and I worked was to have these larger philosophical discussions and then there were very practical issues about who would shoot what interviews and how we would frame things. John shot the film. He has a terrific eye. He is self-taught. You get a sense of the kind of person he is. He's a singular individual and, in some ways, the perfect person to have discovered Vivian's work. He has an obsessive attention to detail that this enterprise required. Also, he was young and a little bit foolish. People thought he was crazy at the time. Now, of course, it seems like a no-brainer; but, at the time, you have to remember these were undeveloped negatives for the most part and required a huge outlay of money that he didn't particularly have. He had saved up some money from working as a real estate agent and doing flea market sales, that sort of thing; but, he was dogged in his pursuit of this goal. The more he dug into it, the more obsessed he became with it.

In terms of sharing the work, we fell into a natural working relationship where we would look at cuts together. I would say John had more of a hand and a focus on shooting interviews and I had more of a focus on telling the story, if I had to break it down simply.

Guillén: With full respect towards your not wanting to psychoanalyze Vivian Maeir, you did however quite expertly present her psychological complication. One of the ways in which you did that was in your usage of the original material. When you were presenting her persona as an artist, you were showing us these tremendous photographs that were works of art, and yet when you were trying to talk about her as a person with some of these complicated issues that were being revealed in the on-screen testimonials, you stuck to snapshots and home movie footage, almost like they were B-reels. Can you speak to that strategy and that creative decision?

Siskel: Yes, we did have these two types of materials to work with. Specifically, there were photographs that were clearly Vivian's art, and then there were photographs and Super 8 films that were essentially B-roll or snapshots of family, documentary material in that way. Vivian was a brilliant artist who experimented in a range of different styles. She was interested in abstract work in her photography, experimenting with light and composition, but she was also interested in real documentary subjects, social justice, and documenting people on the fringes of society, street life and classic street photography.

But she was also a woman living in the sleepy suburbs of Chicago where not much was happening so she would go to the inner city, to the stockyards, to skid row in Chicago, to get in touch with real life. When something finally happens--a kid gets hit by a car on a bicycle--there was Vivian with her camera because finally there's a story. Vivian is a natural story teller. She was interested in documenting such events with her camera. These are photographs that clearly aren't Vivian's art, but are more documentary material. That was how we used both.

Initially, we thought of Vivian as a nanny who somehow lucked into becoming a photographer and managed to take these 150,000 photographs; but, by the time we finished and as we spent more and more time looking at the material and thinking about Vivian, her character, we realized we had it 180º wrong. Vivian was truly an artist—that's who she truly was—and she was masquerading as a nanny. Being a nanny was a means to an end. It was what allowed her to take her pictures. Once you recognize that the answer to the riddle is that Vivian was really an artist, that's who she was, trapped in limiting circumstances as a woman in the 1950s-1960s with the barriers that represented in the art world, but also as a member of the working class—she's working as a nanny and a maid and a domestic worker—and then there were other barriers as well. It was intimidating to share her work as an artist. But once you recognize that that's who Vivian really was, the rest of her story starts to make a lot more sense.

Guillén: It strikes me that Vivian Maier had a self-defined persona. I get the sense she knew she was an artist and yet she was somehow unmoored in the flow of time. As a street photographer myself, she was using aesthetics of ephemerality and the passing of moments to try to situate herself and, in that process, chronicled and observed history.

I used the archaeological reference because my university training was in archaeology. I was a Central American archaeologist focusing on the Maya. What I walked away with from those studies was that the Maya—who are famous for their beautifully sculpted lapidary works—never meant for much of that art to be seen. Much of that art, the minute it was made, was thrown into a cenote or buried deep in a cave or incorporated into the initial structures of architecture as propitiatory offerings. Learning this about the Maya made me question: what is the real purpose of art? How does art energize the world? Does it energize it as artifact—a painting on a wall or a sculpture in a garden—what we would now narrow down to privatized ownership, or does it energize the world by mere presence? In the case of the Maya, an invisible presence?  A hidden presence?

I know you've touched upon this in the film, but have you reached any answer or come to a comfortable position to understand why Vivian Maier didn't take the necessary step to bring her art out into the world?

Siskel: Thank you. That's a wonderful way to pose that question. That is the central question of the film. It's what creates tension in the film and, therefore, a story. We obviously play with that in the film. We have someone who says flat out, "Vivian would have hated this. Those were her babies and she would not have wanted them on display." I firmly disagree with that and yet I included that interview in the film. It's there because that's the conversation we want people to be having; but, I think the woman who said that is wrong. I don't think she understands Vivian at all.

Obviously we have people contradicting each other in the film at many places. Someone says her accent was real and another person says her accent was fake. You get to decide. Maybe it's a little of both? My feeling is that Vivian didn't show her work during her lifetime in fact, but that isn't evidence of her intention. Just as the facts of many of our lives, most I would say, aren't always evidence of our intention. The fact that maybe none of us in this room are millionaires doesn't mean that none of us want to be millionaires.

Guillén: I can vouch for that.

Siskel: Vivian, I believe, wanted to show her work. She made attempts to show her work. She didn't, in fact, show her work other than the few examples we show in the film. She did print these postcards and tried to make a business out of selling these postcards in France. She sent these landscape images to the printer in France, he printed them, and she wanted to print other images in the same way. She talked about night photographs, street scenes, and this was clearly her documentary material and art.

I think there were many reasons why Vivian didn't show her work. I mentioned earlier there were barriers posed as a woman, as someone working in people's homes. She's living an itinerant life, moving from house to house, carrying boxes with her wherever she goes. She doesn't have a lab. She's not set up to print her own work. It would have also been incredibly expensive to do. It's time-consuming. She did do some printing, as we mentioned, but she was not very good at it. It's difficult. That's why some photographers work with printers. Then there's also the fact that it's intimidating to show your work as an artist. You risk rejection. You risk being told that your work isn't good. Finally, I would say, that habits set in. This is certainly true for me and, I imagine, it's true for other people. It's true for Vivian. She got into a pattern. She got used to the idea that someday the photographs would be printed.

What's incredible, and what's marvelous and ultimately heroic is that Vivian continued to do the work. She was never deterred for decade upon decade for over 50 years without the validation of the public, without other artists seeing her work, without collaborators, without printers or galleries supporting her. She continued to do the work of an artist. That's what artists do.

I understand why some people are drawn to keep their art private—and your Mayan example is a good one; Emily Dickinson is another who famously wanted her work destroyed but her work wasn't destroyed. Kafka was another one who wanted some of his writings to be destroyed. Thankfully, they were not. In Vivian's case, she didn't destroy her work. She didn't tell anyone she wanted her work to be destroyed. She did the opposite. She preserved it, meticulously and at great expense. She spent tens of thousands of dollars over time keeping up storage lockers. This notion of the artist who is creating art for art's sake or who is creating a private art that is too pure to share with the public is a bit overstated. For me, I find it a little pat. There may be people who disagree and I welcome that and, obviously, the film invites that conversation. Ultimately, as Degas said, art is not what you see; it's what you make others see. I believe that's true in Vivian's case. Her art is not what she saw through the camera and then hid away in storage lockers, it's what we're seeing now. It's what you saw. It just didn't happen during her lifetime. She would have been better for that. It would have been interesting to see the direction that her life might have gone if her work had been discovered and appreciated. I do think she would have been gratified to know that her work is finally finding the audience that it was intended for.

Guillén: Her brilliance is made more poignant to me by the fact that she was helpless in a way and dependent or hoping for chance to provide opportunity.

[At this point I opened up the conversation for input from the audience, whose questions I've paraphrased.]

Audience Member: I was intrigued by the sequence in the documentary where it was revealed that Vivian's mother was also a photographer. Is anything further known about her parents?

Siskel: Yes, Vivian's mom did take pictures. That was her Brownie camera, which is a very simple camera and the kind of camera that Vivian started on. We don't know much more about Vivian's mother or her father. Her father Charles was Austrian and Vivian's mother was born in France. She worked in New York as a seamstress in, essentially, a sweat shop. They moved around. We didn't include this in the film, but at one point—after her father was out of the picture—Vivian and her mother lived with a woman photographer named Jeanne J. Bertrand who was a French portrait photographer. We were intrigued by that. Did Vivian come under Jeanne Bertrand's influence in some way? There are some people who have wondered and speculated about that influence, but we just don't know. We know that Vivian and her mother were living with Bertrand at age four and that by age twelve she is not. She may have been living under the same roof from four to eleven, but we would be speculating.

Audience Member: Have the museums changed their attitude towards Maier's work?

Siskel: Not really. There is some growing acceptance. The film is playing at MOMA, which is a nice little irony. There is interest but we are still at the stage where no one quite knows what to do. John reached out to these institutions because, specifically, he needed help financially, as well as their expertise. He ended up finding that expertise through others like Joel Meyerowitz, Mary Ellen Mark, and Howard Greenberg (who represents many great photographers) and through having to finance the work through sales of the prints. Those institutions are, obviously, slower to come around and adjust. They don't canonize an unheard-of brand-new photographer overnight; but, our hope is that will happen. We think it should.

Audience Member: I'm intrigued by Maier's audiotapes and what you might have learned about her through them?

Siskel: I'll tell you one funny story. We found a lot of audiotapes that were very muffled sound but sounded like singing. We also had a lot of Super 8 footage where Vivian was shooting plays, operas or musicals. We finally put the two together and realized that Vivian was basically bootlegging musicals in downtown Chicago at the Schubert Theater, hiding an audio recorder under her coat and shooting film from down low. To what end? We don't really know. She was just interested in culture and in what was happening in the world politically at rallies, that sort of thing. The material we used in the film where she was interviewing people about the impeachment reflected, again, that she was living in this little town outside of Chicago where nothing was really happening. We have one audio recording, which we didn't use in the film, where she shows up at someone's doorstep, knocks on the door and says, "I understand that you met Rudolph Valentino when he was in town? Is he as good-looking as he is in the movies? I hear he's not as good-looking. Is that true?" Vivian was looking for people who had real experiences that somehow stood apart from everyday life. I think she found suburban life a bit boring, tiresome and mundane.

She was a real Socialist. As one of the more astute subjects in the film points out, Vivian might have looked down on some of the families she was with. She was self-taught, very well-read, and had obviously traveled and seen the world and was familiar with what was happening with other cultures. She was certainly reading the New York Times. I don't know if her employers were. There were many areas that interested her and I think she used the audiotape recording and the Super 8 footage to explore her interests. She was like a radio producer producing radio documentary pieces. The footage that we show of the babysitter who was slain, there Vivian is making a film in the camera, editing it within the camera, while walking in the footsteps of this babysitter who had been murdered. She was a natural storyteller and was interested in telling stories through still photographs, moving images and audio recordings.

That being said, she was not making audio diaries. They were not confessional in nature. If they were, we would have included that. I don't think Vivian was interested in self-analysis in that way or in telling her own story. What's intriguing is the fact that she did take all these self-portraits. There are so many self-portraits. As someone who is described by some as reclusive and private, I don't think she was private at all actually. I think she was incredibly extroverted. She went out into the world. She was taking pictures. She's chatting up people at the antique store and the book store. Vivian was no wall flower. She was out in the world as a force of nature.

Going back to the question of how Vivian would have felt about all of this, for me what is most telling is not what her employers thought of her. They were her employers, she was the help, and she was going to be dismissed at some point; that was the relationship there. She would either be dismissed because she had crossed some line or because the kids would get older. That relationship with her employers was fraught, because at the same time she was very intimate with them. She was living with them and taking care of their kids, she was supposed to love them as if they were her own children, and yet she could be dismissed, and was. If you really want to know how Vivian saw herself, look at those self-portraits. Those are portraits of an artist. Vivian sees herself as an artist. They are like Rembrandt's self-portraits, or Van Gogh's self-portraits—not to compare her to those artists necessarily—but, only to say that they have all the hallmarks of self-portraiture.

Audience Member: I'm fascinated in both her early childhood and her later life. What were her photos like in her later life? Has her work been placed in any kind of chronology?

Siskel: Vivian had switched to largely color film in her later work, 35mm, and she continued to be interested in social issues, but not as much traditional street photography. She's not shooting people as much. She's looking at abstract themes: graffiti, political messages, newspaper headlines, that sort of thing, plus some abstract color work where she's shooting puddles, and light.

There are about 700 rolls of color film that have not yet been developed. They are in cold storage because they're very fragile and susceptible to damage. We don't know what will be found, if and when those rolls are developed.

Audience Member: Without the advantage of seeing what is on those rolls, do you fear your documentary portrait is incomplete?

Siskel: I'm curious to know what's there. It will be a costly process to develop them carefully without damaging them. But your point is a good one. In telling the story through this metaphor of taking all of Vivian's personal effects and laying them out as if they're butterflies on display, as if we've scrutinized each and every business card, every receipt, every number scratched on a piece of paper, that was the task, right? We're sifting through to find and piece together this person's life and their story. Now imagine that we were to do that with your closet or your bureau, right? Half of that stuff will be evidence of nothing at all. It's just stuff that you forgot to throw away because you got lazy or because it was a business card on whose back you had written down the combination of a lock. It was a maddening process. We were on some level tormented with the thought that we might be missing something, that we might get something wrong, that we might omit something, that we might not have looked on the back of a business card to find what was really relevant. At a certain point we came to the liberating conclusion that wasn't really the job. Once you recognize that some of what you're finding is evidence and some of it is evidence of nothing at all—and that's the nature of this kind of documentary storytelling, let alone the nature of human life and our interactions with one another—then you free yourself of the idea that you won't be done until every last piece of evidence is scrutinized.

Maybe something will come out? Maybe someone will come forward and it will turn out that Vivian had a third identity as a world-famous baton twirler. I doubt that, I don't think that's true; but, I suppose that's possible. At a certain point, you just have to free yourself of this burden that the work isn't done until every last stone is turned over. I'll go further and say there's a decent chance that there are boxes of Vivian's work that were lost and were never found.

Audience Member: It strikes me that the meager salary she would have been making as a nanny would have prohibited her ability to develop and print all of her own work.

Siskel: Absolutely. Look, if she had not only been developing negatives but trying to make prints from those negatives, the cost of housing all of this—and housing this safely—would have been astronomical and it would have required an incredible amount of time on her part; time that she didn't have. As it was, she's taking the kids on these wild adventures so that she can take her pictures. Maybe part of it was to broaden their horizons and show them a different side of life? While other kids are going to the zoo, she's taking her kids to the slaughter house. Personally, I think they were better off.

Vivian is exceptional in two ways. She is an exceptional artist and she's exceptional in that her work was discovered. That is the exception to the rule. Many artists, maybe most artists, never have their work discovered and it makes you wonder how many—as Michael insinuated at the beginning—great artists and works of art are lost? How many artists are sitting right next to you on the train writing the great American novel that will never be read? There's a tragedy in that. The tragedy in Vivian's case was that she didn't get to experience the recognition during her lifetime. The fact that it's happening now and that audiences are embracing her work and her story makes her's a story full of redemption rather than tragedy.

Audience Member: Finding Vivian Maier has some similarities to the documentary Searching For Sugarman, with regard to an unknown artist belatedly achieving visibility. Can you speak to that similarity?

Siskel: I really enjoyed Searching For Sugarman. How would I compare the stories? I don't know exactly. As I said, I enjoyed Sugarman and I say that without necessarily being a fan of the music. I just thought the storytelling was very good. I guess one difference would be that I believe—and I'm not alone in this—that Vivian Maier will take her place in the canon of 20th Century photography. She will be compared to the great photographers of the mid-century and beyond. I don't know if that's true of Rodriguez. Fortunately, in the art world there are no rankings, there are no winners, and there are no "first place" titles, so we don't have to make those kinds of distinctions and it's probably just as well that we don't; but, history will ultimately look fondly on Vivian Maier.