12/11/2014 06:52 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Rescuing Vivian Maier

Here's my favorite type of movie puzzle.

In this 2014 American movie, a fascinating woman is absent, leaving behind nothing but mystery. A man searches for her, trying to uncover clues as to her true nature. As we journey along with him, interviewing friends and associates, we begin to learn that this woman may well have been a creative genius. But as we dig even deeper, we also discover her dark side, and behavior clearly suggestive of mental illness.

If I were to tell you the woman in question would return to the proceedings, you might guess the film is David Fincher's Gone Girl. If I told you she were dead from the outset, the movie would have to be Finding Vivian Maier, directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel.

These two movies -- the first, a much-anticipated thriller taken from a best-selling novel, and the latter, a documentary about a reclusive nanny who may have been one the great 20th century street photographers - are two of the best American movies of 2014, and what they say about the state of modern American women should not be overlooked. I have already written about Gone Girl ( so I will not rehash those thoughts. Instead, let's think about what Vivian has to teach us.

Start with the understanding that American movies have never been particularly good at nuanced portraits of complex women. Of course there are exceptions, but in general, both theater (Blanche DuBois) and television (Lucy) have proven better mediums for exploring female characters. One common explanation for this is that movies, being better able to portray scenes of action and spectacle, have consequently favored characters of action and spectacle (i.e. men). Television and theater, which are by necessity more reliant on dialogue, have explored interior conflict. And you know how much men hate to talk about such things.

But this is a hard argument to sustain. Other cultures have made many great films about women. In Sweden, most of Ingmar Bergman's greatest movies examine female identity. In Japan, Yasujiro Ozu made a series of movies from the 1930s through the 1950s which provide a virtual chronicle of the changing status of women in Japanese culture during that period. In 1964, Shohei Imamura's Intentions of Murder, about a common woman's defiance of a rapist, was remarkable for the very ordinariness of its hero. A decade later, Belgian director Chantal Akerman continued that line of thought with the astonishing Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. These were movies that resolutely denied the Madonna/whore archetype. They were about ordinary women driven to extremes.

But in America, such films were slow to emerge. Of course, Hollywood picked up on feminism as a marketable commodity, and there were movies that offered women more intriguing roles. Many of those film featured Jane Fonda as the image of the modern American woman. But what's notable about most of those movies is how overtly political they were. Whether it was Fonda in The China Syndrome (1979), Sally Field in Norma Rae (1979), Meryl Streep in Silkwood (1983), Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000), or Frances McDormand in North Country (2005), it seems as if American movies felt more comfortable confronting women's stories when they were couched in broader political contexts. The woman herself didn't seem to carry enough weight. Such was not the case with Bergman or Ozu, Imumura or Akerman.

Which brings us back to Vivian Maier. Maloof and Siskell do a very good job of keeping the focus on Vivian's personal story. That would seem to be a no-brainer because it is such a remarkable story. Vivian Maier, a pack rat who did not like to give her real name to people, an itinerant nanny who once claimed to be a spy, a child of New York who may or may not have affected a phony French accent, was a woman of great mystery. Even those who considered themselves closest to her had no idea that during the course of her life, this supremely private woman was constantly getting up close and personal with seemingly every strata of society in New York and beyond through the lens of her Rolleiflex camera.

To be sure, there are political issues to be discussed. Were Vivian's dreams of being a recognized artist stifled due to her gender? It is debatable whether she ever had such dreams to begin with. Should her likely mental illness have been better managed? She didn't appear to desire any type of intervention. One of the strengths of the movie is that it raises so many thought-provoking questions. You come away thinking about what (and who) defines great art. You come away thinking of the link between the visionary and the madman. You come away wondering about the filmmaker's actions in publicizing this life. But most of all, you come away haunted by Vivian Maier, which is how it should be.

Late in her life, several young men, former charges of Vivian when she was a nanny, more or less came to her rescue and provided her with care and shelter. In the film, Maloof and Siskel also appear to come to her "rescue" by revealing her talent to the world. (The only mistake the movie makes is to allow Maloof to be an onscreen character, playing the role of detective. Because unlike Michael Moore, who becomes a great character in his own films, Maloof is rather bland.)

That concept of "rescue" hovers over Vivian Maier -- the person, the onscreen character, and the movie itself. Maloof and Siskel deserve great credit for getting this story told. They identified the value in Vivian when others did not. They put in the enormous legwork that is characteristic of any great documentary. I am glad I was able to see their movie. And yet, it remains troubling to realize that we have here another example of a woman -- in this case, a supremely talented woman - who exercised such great control in her life, and yet ultimately had no control of her legacy.

Maloof makes the argument that Vivian Maier would have wanted her work revealed, but of course, it is in his own interests to make such a case. The fact is, we will never know. Amy Dunne, the female lead in Gone Girl, was given the ability to write her own resolution. Vivian was not. Such is the difference between fiction and reality.