Finding Vivian Maier – A Review

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about an undiscovered artist which unfolds how a forensic case would. We start off with a young man John Maloof buying a box of film negatives at an auction to help with the history book he is writing and hopes that the negatives will have some images of Chicago from the earlier years that he can use. Once he looks at the negatives he realizes it is not what he needs and puts the box away. That should have been it, but the strength of the images keeps haunting Maloof and he starts thinking about who this person was. The name Vivian Maier – a google search reveals nothing (and now there are 4.7 million results) he starts to scan the images and posts them on Flickr – the social network for photography enthusiasts. The response he gets is astounding and he starts piecing the life of this artist together.

A few days after posting the images on Flickr Maloof does another google search and an obituary note for Vivian Maier turns up. She died a few days ago. Getting in touch with poster of the obituary note leads Maloof to a self-storage that holds the personal belongings of Miss Maier. Maloof then starts unearthing other fragments of  the life of this undiscovered artist who for the most part of her life worked as a nanny. There are thousands upon thousands of film negatives with images of such startling quality that it is immediately clear that this was more than just a passing hobby of a nanny.

With interviews from families she was a nanny, a governess, a housekeeper Maloof puts the pieces of the puzzle together. There are audio tapes and even video recordings that Vivian took to essentially document the world she saw through her eyes and the shutter of the rolleiflex. This tells a story of a woman who had a humor about her and the way she captured the world around her with each frame cleverly juxtaposing the extremities of the human existence in the most humorous setting and also not shying away from political commentary.  A number of her striking images are used in this movie but you get a sense of the documentary only scratching the surface of her genius. The picture of the black kid polishing the boots of a white kid is such a strong image that could be looked at in so many contexts that it begs the question of how much more treasure does her entire collection hold.

The humorous woman we are introduced to via the pictures suddenly becomes something entirely different with her previous wards describing her behavior as odd and eccentric, guarded and paranoid, with an odd fixation on the crime stories in the newspapers. It just starts becoming clearer that despite the fact that she obviously knew how talented she was she didn’t feel connected to the world around her to want to share her point of view.  There are tales of how she traveled the world and documented images she took overseas but also of the odd behavior where despite being born in New York she put on a fake French accent and wore manly and ill-fitted clothes. She took self-portraits so there was a definite vanity in her but the face was always in a quizzical and detached expression.  There are two interviews in particular that make you feel for Vivian, one where while she was still a nanny and the family wanted to be foster parents to another child Vivian asks them to take care of her instead and another towards the later part of her life when she runs into an old employer and Vivian begs her to sit with her and spend some time but she can’t as she has to get to the beach. But then there are some interviews which make you question if she was in fact ever a right choice to be a nanny to kids. One generic observation I have looking at all the people who were interviewed in the film is that at least the kids who Vivian looked after seem to all have a certain quality about them that makes them slightly odd, almost a little bitter with a tendency to laugh at the oddest things. I could be reading too much into it but I felt a little uncomfortable listening to these people who would appear to have some discomfort in a social situation.  Also Maloof seems a little suspect to me – about how he rails on against the art establishment for not hosting a Vivian Maier show (MOMA and Tate modern for instance). I really see no point in bringing it up in this documentary which is essentially to bring the brilliance of this nanny cum street photographer who might just be one of the most influential photographers.

But the movie is not about these people – it is about the people Vivian captures through her lens and the story she is trying to tell of the people and the situations she sees around herself. And what a fascinating conversation that is. I wish the movie ended with a collage/montage of more of her images and that a few of her self-portraits.  This is among the best documentaries I have seen because it introduces a subject matter that would otherwise remain unexplored and Vivian Maier is one of the most intriguing characters I have come across – it has been a few days since I saw the movie and her persona and the images he captured still are playing over and over in my head and that laugh she had when she was speaking about the weird phone calls she received after posting an ad in the newspaper for work. Vivian Maier was an enigma and I cannot wait to see more of her pictures.


Joan Rivers : A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers a name that would mean different things to different people.It could mean a legendary comedic icon who paved the way for female comedians, it could mean a nasty acid tongued mean spirited person who takes a jabs at others while she is dealing with her own insecurities, it could also be the poster-child of the plastic surgery industry. What Joan Rivers – a piece of work does is it throws open all the above mentioned pre-conceptions/misconceptions that people have about Joan and throws in a few more for good measure.


The documentary begins with Joan and her assistant Jocelyn sitting together to go over her schedule and you can see how upset she is with her almost blindingly blank bookings diary. She even makes a joke about needing sunglasses to look at the diary because the blank white dates are blinding to her. She also refers to her older diaries which during the peak of her career were chock-a-block full with appearances and shows. You see how she is willing to debase herself by doing things anyone with any self respect would turn down but she can’t afford to.


The documentary lets you in on her personal life, the over the top Marie Antoinette style mansion, the people she surrounds herself with her staff her manager Bill who is her only link to her glory days but also you feel the tension and the growing resentment as Joan repeatedly refers that Bill is never there when she’s in trouble but then again maybe he is the only friend she has left. You see her relationship with her daughter, at times over bearing and over protective and at times caring and understanding.


By means of old footage you are introduced to how Joan came to be The Joan Rivers. How she was got her break on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show and how with her increasing popularity and her wild ways she became a regular guest on the tonight show – a feat almost unimaginable for a female comedian.  After that seminal moment which could very well have propelled her to unimaginable heights of stardom the circumstances transpired and she never seemed to have quite made it.  The downward spiral hit rock bottom when her husband Edgar committed suicide and which drove Joan and Melissa apart. The scene where she talks about the movie she did with Melissa confronting the subject of her husband’s suicide and how it worked for her as a catharsis and brought the mother and daughter closer is particularly refreshing.


But this is not a out and out depressing or a self-pity documentary. That is just not how Joan does it. She takes the punches better than she lands them. The way she goes about carrying on because that is the only way she knows how to survive and her constant struggle to get back to the top of the game is inspiring to say the least. A Scene where she is doing her standup comedy and makes a pass about deaf children and someone in the audience gets agitated because he has a deaf child is particularly telling. She didn’t mean to cause any personal assault but if you attack her she will come back at you with everything she has got and boy she’s got a lot!

A career that has spanned more than four decades and is now dwindling, where she has become nothing more than a walking joke, leads her to the comedy central roast. She is disgusted by the idea that there will be comedians who will be making scathing remarks about her age and her numerous plastic surgeries but the fact that she has to do it for the money is what stood out for me. This scene and another in a car in London where her play hasn’t been that well received shows you that even the most acid tongued comedian has her weaknesses, her own insecurities and her own demons to battle.


As a documentary this could be one of the finest I have seen, there is no bias or pity to portray Joan as the martyr or the victim. There is no glorifying the past and lamenting the state of things as they are today but rather the struggle of a 75 year old woman who just wants to keep doing what makes her happy. At the end when you see she has fired her friend Bill and you see her break down you can see all the masks coming off – this is just an old woman who is alone and is very afraid of having lost her only link to her glory days or do you see talented and a hugely underappreciated actress ?


See this documentary for it is a piece of work, see it for its comedic moments see it for its unapologetic look at a star who is driven by vanity and the constant need to be in the limelight but more than anything else see it for a pioneer who broke through barriers and made a name for herself despite the circumstances and is still going strong to prolong her legacy. See it for Joan River who is not just a piece of work but a piece of art.

The Art of The Steal (documentary) – A Review

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for The Art of the StealHow can a documentary be so engaging that you watch it over and over and over. That’s right a documentary that I have seen not just once or twice but three times. The Art of Steal by Don Argott plays like a debriefing of a major heist. Interspersed with interviews from people who knew Dr. Albert Barnes personally or were associated with the “friends of the Barnes foundation” and also newspaper clippings and interviews with people who are essentially the bad-guys in this movie.

If it is a heist movie then there has to be a priceless treasure at the heart of it. And here we are talking of a private collection of post-impressionist and modern art which is conservatively estimated at 25-35 billion and might even touch a 100 billion mark if art like that was ever to hit the market. It consists the who’s who of the greatest artists including Van Gogh, Degas, Matisse, Renoirs, Cezanne’s, Picassos, Monet’s and Manets. Art that is not just staggering in terms of quantity but also in terms of the quality in that it includes some of the best example of the artist’s work, for instance it includes Cezanne’s Card players featuring 5 subjects as opposed to the Cezanne’s Card Player which is currently the most expensive painting at 259-300 million featuring 2 subjects.


The documentary does not try to strike a balance in terms of portraying both sides of the story. It is an out and out vilification of the people who disregarded Dr. Barnes wishes and moved the collection out of its original house.  But I don’t have a problem with that. Imagine if you will that you are a very rich and successful chemist who has developed an antiseptic drug Argyrol to treat gonorrhea and made a fortune from selling your company in your 30s. you then go on to study art and actively collect artists who are not that famous yet and also picking up famous post-impressionist masterpieces before those names became being taken in the same breath as Da Vinci and other masters. Imagine that you lovingly put your art on display not in the setting of a museum but more like how it would in a home, putting pictures together because of their visual style rather than just the artist’s name. Imagine that you explicitly put it in your will that the art is to be forever displayed in the same way to students who want to learn from the masters. Imagine that after you died greedy rich fat-cats want to lay their dirty hands on your priceless treasure to rip it off the walls you so lovingly adorned to be displayed in the stark soulless confines of museums which will also play hosts to the same rich fat-cats’ dinner galas. I’d be pretty darn pissed would you? So what if I was a nutcase and didn’t like the society folks of Philadelphia? It is still my art and my wish and my will which has been violated. There can simply be no justification. The argument that had it not been done the public would have been deprived of the art is ridiculous and blasted to smithereens by the fact that Dr Barnes always allowed a limited number of visitors to come in to view the display and spend as much time as they wished.

Some of the interviewees who speak so passionately about the power of the art and eye with which Barnes put the collection together you are moved yourself. This is a fascinating documentary which covers nearly all the aspects of the decades long legal struggle of trying to return the Barnes collection to its original home in Lower Merion Pennsylvania.

If you’ve never seen any documentary then might I recommend you start with this one? While some documentary subject matters are very hard to palate this plays out more like a thriller. This is an exciting and fascinating look at an art theft which is perhaps second only to what Hitler perpetrated at the beginning of the Second World War.

As a side note, on my recent visit to USA , I was thrilled to bits to be visiting Philadelphia and wanted to watch the Barnes collection at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as much as I hated the people who put the collection there I wanted to see in person the art that was at the center of the entire debate, but turns out the only wish of Dr. Barnes that they have adhered to is to limit the number of visitors and I was not allowed inside despite several requests and pleas that I had a flight to catch back to India the next day.