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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Finding Vivian Maier documentary review: secret art comes into the light

Finding Vivian Maier green light

An extraordinary examination of a remarkable photographer, part portrait unraveled by meticulous detective work, part sharp criticism of the hidebound art establishment.
I’m “biast” (pro): have been fascinated by her story since I first learned about Vivian Maier

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

And to think that it’s pure accident that the work of Vivian Maier was even uncovered at all! Chicago junkhound John Maloof — who directed this fascinating documentary with Charlie Siskel — purchased a huge auction lot of old negatives and undeveloped film for possible use in an unrelated project, and only later realized that he had stumbled upon the work of a woman who must surely be considered one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, if one only just suddenly and unexpectedly recognized. Part portrait of a reclusive woman built up piece by piece via Maloof’s meticulous detective work, and part scolding of how the art establishment jealously guards its perimeters and only grudgingly bestows its approval, this is an extraordinary examination of a remarkable artist who was difficult, contradictory, and mysterious; who elicits startlingly divergent memories in those who knew her (was she kind and adventurous? was she violent and cruel?); who forces us to wonder if she was actually mentally ill or simply deeply odd and nonconformist. It’s the kind of warts-and-all yet nonjudgmental study we’re used to seeing about male artists but hardly ever about women, and it becomes a stunning detonation of our expectations about creative people. And the photos! They speak to me in a way that I find difficult to articulate: they’re not just beautiful in an aesthetic sense, gorgeously framed with powerful appreciations of form and color, but also in a human sense. Maier saw people in all their pain and joy, saw through them to get at their secret unique, yet still mysterious, essence… including, often, her own, as we see in some of her many self-portraits. As Maloof says, her work has “a sense of humor and a sense of tragedy… she had it all.” The thought that her work could well have ended up in the garbage or packed away in a closet, unseen and unappreciated, almost makes me cry. But it was saved, and we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of it. I cannot wait to see more of her art.


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Finding Vivian Maier for its representation of girls and women.


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Finding Vivian Maier (2014)
US/Can release: Mar 28 2014
UK/Ire release: Jul 18 2014

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent child abuse references)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Lennon

    Loved this documentary. I’ve been very interested in Vivian Maier since seeing her work in a live This American Life show two years or so ago. What a strange, fascinating woman. And those pictures! I don’t know tons about art, but I know they really grabbed a hold of me. Truly amazing. It is very strange and sad to think how close we came to never knowing about her or seeing any of those pictures.

  • Bluejay

    We miss you, John.

  • Lennon

    Ha, that threw me for a minute. I was wondering if John Maloof died and I missed it!

    Lennon is just my name. No affiliation with John was intended. Other than the one from when my parents named me, I guess.

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