Rep Cinema This Week: Finding Vivian Maier, The Unknown Known, and The Past



Rep Cinema This Week: Finding Vivian Maier, The Unknown Known, and The Past

The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.

Still from Finding Vivian Maier.

At rep cinemas this week: a portrait of a Chicago street photographer, an interrogation of Donald Rumsfeld, and a multicultural riff on the melodrama from Asghar Farhadi.

Finding Vivian Maier
Directed by Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

A virtual unknown until amateur historian and collector John Maloof began mounting posthumous retrospectives of her work around 2009, Vivian Maier has in recent years become a cause célèbre in photography circles for her staggering collection of over 100,000 photographs—mostly street portraits taken in her adopted home of Chicago. Those disparate strands come together a bit uneasily in Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary co-directed by Charlie Siskel and Maloof, who doubles as our narrator and frequent onscreen interlocutor.

Maloof sets the stage early on, wondering why the life’s work of such an apparently accomplished photographer would end up consigned to the auction bins in which he found it in 2007, at which point Maier was still alive but by most accounts homeless and penniless. The film follows his line of inquiry, suggesting that Maier’s unsettled childhood in France and subsequent forty-year career as a nanny in Chicago—where she lived as a perpetually single, eccentric sort, confronting strangers on the street about their politics while disclosing little of her own—shaped her into a fringe artist destined to be unknown until after her death.

There’s certainly a picaresque life behind Maier’s portraits, but Maloof and Siskel lean too hard on their initial angle, which is that there is something inherently inspiring about the idea that a nanny should also be a photographer. Though there are some nice shadings to their developing psychological profile of their subject, and some fascinating tentative suggestions about her method of snapping photos from low angles to catch her own subjects unawares, there’s altogether too much of Maloof and not enough of Maier in the approach. It reads as a novice curator’s suppositions about an artist, rather than an informed survey by an expert, who might more profitably have contextualized Maier’s work within any number of frameworks—from the genre of street photography to the history of Chicago to the social expectations placed on unmarried women in North American culture of the 1960s. Lacking those contexts, Finding Vivian Maier is in the end little more than a good excuse to see the artist’s photographs on a big screen, not that that’s anything to complain about.

The Unknown Known
Directed by Errol Morris
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Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)

A decade after he profiled former U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, Errol Morris applies his mild interrogation techniques to Donald Rumsfeld. Though The Unknown Known‘s effect is often one of déjà vu—Morris’s stylistic ticks, like slow-motion shots of objects moving through the air, are here in full force—this is still a vital attempt to pin down a notoriously slippery architect of post-9/11 American foreign policy.

The title is a play on Rumsfeld’s infamous declaration, when pressed to talk about whether it would be worthwhile for the U.S. to go to war with Iraq absent any proof that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, that there were “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” Morris makes a show of how this bit of euphemistic wordplay was characteristic of a man who sent staffers countless memos about dictionary definitions of terms, always eager to slip out whatever logical backdoor he could find. That much we already knew, but the film’s big contribution to the historical record might be in the way it reveals the extent to which Rumsfeld saw much of his work for the Department of Defense in the same light, as a game to be won on rhetorical grounds.

The Past
Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)

Asghar Farhadi follows up his remarkable, Oscar-winning A Separation with a less successful portrait of a family in crisis. In The Past, the director trades Tehran for Paris, and focuses on the secrets that come to light when Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns from Iran to finalize his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo, best actress winner at Cannes), who’s now in a relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), a man haunted by his own private demons.

Farhadi started out as a theatre director, and when he’s at his best, his films have the charged interpersonal dynamics of a good Tennessee Williams play, stopping just short of exploitative melodrama. The Past goes a bit too far over the line, doling out the script’s increasingly convoluted revelations one false scene at a time, until each confrontation begins to feel like a hollow set-up raised only to be taken down moments later. That over-reliance on twists makes the film a curious misfire from one of the most sophisticated storytellers in contemporary world cinema.