Monday, February 16, 2015

Picture That

If there's anything tonight proved, it's that Richmond is not only a photography town but a film town.

Both intersected in Carytown tonight for the Richmond premiere of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Finding Vivian Maier" about the Chicago street photographer whose 150,000+ negatives weren't discovered until after her death.

I know I wasn't the only one who'd been wondering since last March if the documentary would ever play Richmond. And goodness knows, I was one of the scores who first saw a small part of the cache of Maier photographs online a few years ago and marveled at this unknown woman's eye and talent.

Like so many fantastic events that happen in Richmond, this one got its start in my neighborhood, Jackson Ward, at the only photography gallery in town. Gallerist Gordon wanted to bring the film to his Candela Gallery, hoping to draw maybe 40 artsy types. I can assure you I would have been one of them.

Seeing assistance to make it happen, he went to the film-obsessed guys who are trying to get the Bijou - a small 100-120 seat repertory theater - up and running here. They saw the potential to not only bring the film, but use it as a fundraiser for both the Bijou and Richmond's landmark movie palace, the venerable Byrd Theater.

That event alone would have made for a terrific Sunday evening, but things kept growing. Soon an after-party was planned with local legends Chez Roue planning to play their next-to-last show in Richmond at NY Deli immediately after the film.

Then Gordon arranged to have a dozen or so of Maier's prints on loan from a gallery in NYC for viewing at Portrait House before the screening. All of a sudden, it was all Vivian Maier, all the time. Or, at least, for 7 1/2 hours tonight.

I wouldn't have missed it for the world despite temperatures that felt like 11 degrees and the cruelest wind I can recall in years.

After meeting a friend for dinner (and a discussion of the word frigid and its now almost archaic use to describe women), I made a detour to Chop Suey Books to use a birthday gift certificate to pick up a new book I'd seen a review of last week. "1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music" sounded like just my kind of read and luckily for me, they had a copy in stock.

Book in hand, it was on to Portrait House where we were eager to see Maier prints in the flesh. The place was mobbed with others just as eager, so we waited our turn to get close enough to Gordon for him to flip through the large-format matted photographs, each as riveting as the last.

I don't care if this woman worked as a nanny for 40 or 400 years, she clearly had a photographer's eye.

Once we'd seen them, we stepped aside to allow others in for a viewing. In the back, we met a relative newcomer to Richmond, here only a year since moving down from Pennsylvania, and almost giddy with excitement about tonight's film.

The funny part was, he hadn't known about it until this morning when he'd seen a flyer at Globehopper while scoring coffee. I'd bought my ticket weeks ago so as to be sure I didn't miss out. And here we both were, equally thrilled about it.

Given the biting wind and frigid temperatures, it was far from the ideal night to have to stand in a line that ran to the end of the block and around the corner, but with no choice, we made for the end of the line. I soon heard my name called and a favorite couple (he's a photographer and she's a student of pop culture) appeared to join us.

For that matter, once we made it inside, the number of friends I saw was overwhelming. It seemed like everyone was at the Byrd tonight: history geeks, print-makers, prickly types, DJs, authors, Romans and countrymen.

Turns out there were 900+ people crowding the Byrd and overflowing up into the balcony. That's a nice chunk of fundraising and a solid testament to the community's interest in the film.

But the weather and wind had taken its toll not just on my freezing legs but also on the loading door behind the Byrd, which had blown off during a screening of "Annie" earlier. Richmond, we just don't do winter well.

Before the main event, they showed "The Critic," an Oscar-winning Mel Brooks animated short from 1963 with enough hilarious dialog to get everyone chuckling at his commentary about art and modernity.

I think I knew going in that I was going to be fascinated by the documentary because I could have been happy watching an hour and 24 minutes of just her photographs. But listening to the people who employed her as a nanny and the now grown children she'd watched just provided additional reasons to find the story so compelling.

How could she have been so driven to take thousands of pictures without making an effort to have them shown? How would she feel about her pictures being shared now? Why did she hoard newspapers? Was her pseudo-French accent an affectation?

For a documentary dork like me, as many questions were raised as were answered and that's fine, too.

Afterwards, my friends went home and I went next door to NY Deli to hear Chez Roue for the last time. It was packed in there, but the music was rollicking and everyone eager to talk about what we'd just seen.

Sharing a film in a public space has always been the bedrock of the American film experience. No one will ever convince me that watching a movie at home with stops for bathroom breaks and food runs is anything like a genuine film experience.

Which is exactly why we need the Bijou. I don't want to just read about amazing films, I want them to have a place to play in Richmond where I can watch them with 100 or so of my closest strangers (or people I know, I won't discriminate).

Because if 900 people come out on a blustery, nearly sub-zero work night to see a documentary about a dead nanny with a Rolleiflex, we are most definitely a film town.

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