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SHORT TAKES ON FILM
Ben Nyce | Via Latina

 

 
 
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Do you watch many documentaries? Few of us do, preferring the escapism and fantasy of fiction film. If documentaries are a neglected area of our film culture (with the exception of PBS’s “Frontline”), the fact remains that many directors began in documentaries.

Finding Vivian Maier” has been playing to growing interest at Landmark’s La Jolla Village. It’s a fascinating study of a wonderful still photographer who apparently wished that her work remain unseen. The director John Maloof was a real estate agent looking for photos to use in a local history project he was writing. He went to an auction and purchased a large carton of photos but found they were of no use for his project. But luckily he had a good eye and noticed their fine quality. He bought more boxes of the photographer’s work and went on a search for the creator. The documentary is a narrative of his search with plentiful examples of the images. Sometimes the camera doesn’t linger long enough on a particular image but this only sharpens the eye’s appetite for more. The shots mainly depict urban street life in Chicago and New York: frolicking kids, bums, workers at play, crime scenes. Amazingly, photography wasn’t Vivian Maier’s main work. She was a nanny who moved from time to time to a new family always carting her increasingly large number of cartons with her.

Maier called herself a spy. Holding her boxlike Rolliflex at waist level she was able to shoot without being noticed. We often see her shadow overlapping the image or reflected in a window or mirror. She had Cartier Bresson’s quickness in capturing the precise moment, Wegee’s fascination with the macabre, Kertesz’s sense of the abstract, Robert Frank’s feel for the American grain. Her portraits of street people are spontaneous and true. You can see her work online but the documentary captures her mysterious nature. She’s a major photographer who nearly went unnoticed.

For home viewing Agnes Varda’s “Vagabond” is a piercing and disturbing look at one young woman’s decline, shot in a documentary style. The film begins with Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) dying in a ditch during a freezing winter in Southern France. She’s been a hippie, a drop-out with a stubborn determination not to work or even nourish herself. Her nonconformity is both admirable and self-destructive. Varda shows her encounters with a vivid cross section of French society: an old farmer who envies her freedom, a goat herder and his family who live off the land and finds her irresponsible, an Algerian who works in the vineyards whom she loves, a tree specialist who tries to find out why she is the way she is, a young man of good bourgeois character who is deeply unnerved by her behavior. This study in the absurd leaves an impact long after it is experienced. It’s one of the greatest films from France in many years. You can get it from Netflix.

Nyce taught literature and film at USD and is author of “Satyajit Ray” and “Scorsese Up Close.”

 

 

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