My Kid Could Paint That

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Media Literacy

story-200.jpgEye of the Beholder
Arts & Leisure, Movie Review
by Bruce Bennett
The New York Sun
October 5, 2007

“When you’re actually getting documentary gold, it doesn’t feel like gold,” said the filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, the director of My Kid Could Paint That, a remarkable and controversial new nonfiction film that opens today. “It feels bad.”

As his film makes its way to a couch-side conversation that yields the unforgettably heartbreaking, humane, and dramatically priceless moment that is the source of the gold Mr. Bar-Lev referred to, My Kid Could Paint That examines the ideas and feelings behind the nature of art, identity, creativity, truth, and story. It does so with such prickly, fulminating intelligence that one leaves the film abuzz with crystallized impressions, named feelings, and known beliefs that were unspecific notions before the curtain rose.

The film is ostensibly about Marla Olmstead, a painter from Binghamton, N.Y., whose sudden arrival on the art scene initiated a press frenzy in 2004. The artist, whose canvases continue to draw comparisons to the abstract expressionist work of Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollack, was born in 2000. She sold her first painting for $250 when she was just 3 years old to a Binghamton coffee shop, which happily mounted it on the wall. After the New York Times ran an article about Marla’s hugely successful gallery debut in August 2004, journalists at every level of the media food chain converged on Binghamton looking for an angle on the story.

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To varying degrees of awareness, pride, and discomfort, Marla, her parents, Laura and Mark Olmstead, and Marla’s 2-year-old brother, Zane, found themselves in the limelight and in the money as the average price tag on Marla’s work began to add zeroes.

“I showed up at their doorstep the weekend that the rest of the world showed up,” Mr. Bar-Lev said. Miraculously, given Marla’s parents evolving protective anxiety and increasingly media-savvy entrepreneurial drive, the director was able to obtain the Olmsteads’ permission to shoot them for an indeterminate period. “It’s not as much of a feat as you might think,” he said. “The attention span of most news outlets is very short. They bombard people and then they go away within a matter of hours or days.”

Mr. Bar-Lev, whose marvelous debut feature documentary, “Fighter,” was one of the genuine nonfiction film pleasures of 2001, clearly knows his game. “The documentary filmmaker has one ace in the hole,” he said. “All you have to do is stick around a little longer than news crews. I called the Olmsteads and said, ‘Look, I have to shoot this weekend. If you don’t want to move forward with the project, I’ll just give you the tapes. We can talk about this when everybody leaves.'”

As predicted, the morning after Marla’s second and even more lucrative gallery opening, the major media outlets packed up their sound bites and departed. “Everybody left on Sunday morning that weekend.” Mr. Bar-Lev said. “I talked to the family and they agreed to do the piece.”

At home with Marla, Mr. Bar-Lev captures the tiny artist at work, squirting paint and crawling around on her canvases with a band-aid on her knee and sidestepping questions about her relationship to her work with an impatient petulance that Pollack himself would likely have approved. The film also offers a portrait of a family headed by parents with two very different thresholds for child exploitation.

Mark Olmstead, himself an amateur painter, is shown eagerly filling post-its with phone numbers for gallery contacts at his job as night manager at a Frito-Lay plant. His wife, Laura, is more protective and cautions, and when things take a turn for the worse, it’s her pain that provides the film’s most haunting emotional hues. When the Olmsteads and their close supporters close ranks after “60 Minutes” airs a disastrous exposé suggesting that Marla may not, in fact, have painted any of the canvases that bear her signature, Mr. Bar-Lev remains on the inside with growing doubts of his own.

Since completing the film, Mr. Bar-Lev and the Olmsteads have parted company. When My Kid Could Paint That premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Laura Olmstead issued a statement saying she and her husband were “heartbroken by some of the choices [Mr. Bar-Lev] made in his portrayal of our family and the editing of this film.” At press time, Mr. and Mrs. Olmstead were scheduled to appear on “Nightline” tonight to further discuss their reaction to My Kid Could Paint That.

“I think the film is about a handful of tough choices,” Mr. Bar-Lev said. “Pollack and those guys, as I understand it, were trying to explode the myth that the frame of a painting is some sort of window that you’re looking through to see reality in a different place and time.”

Like most of the mass media pundits with whom Mr. Bar-Lev initially competed for the Olmsteads’ time, at the beginning of shooting, “I really was one of those people who felt pretty skeptical about abstract art. I think a lot of people share that skepticism.” But as his doubts about Marla’s paintings grew, Mr. Bar-Lev began to come around to the abstract expressionist way of seeing.

Artists, Mr. Bar-Lev discovered, “paint non-representationally for the same reasons that I included myself on the margins of this documentary.” Filmmaker or painter, “You’re trying to make the process of representation visible to your audience.” When a filmmaker attempts to tell a story in a completely objective, third-person voice, he moves further away from the truth, not closer. “It’s as though they’re trying to delete themselves from the frame or the screen,” Mr. Bar-Lev said.

“All writers, all storytellers are imposing their own narrative on something,” the art critic Michael Kimmelman explains in one onscreen interview. “I mean all art in some way is a lie. It looks like a picture of something but it isn’t that thing, it’s a representation of that thing. Your documentary on some levels is going to be like you’re capturing a version of things.” To underscore Mr. Kimmelman’s point, Mr. Bar-Lev, in an editorial choice he describes as “a prank on myself as a filmmaker” rather than a prank on the esteemed art critic, keeps the camera rolling as Mr. Kimmelman, clearly no stranger to the multiple layers of documentary reality himself, repeats his statement in a cutting-room friendly sound bite.

Uninterested in taking sides regarding the relative “purity” of the approach taken by such cinema vérité filmmakers as Frederick Wiseman, versus accusations of self-aggrandizement leveled at front-and-center filmmakers like Michael Moore, Mr. Bar-Lev said that “each story calls for different treatment,” and cited director Werner Herzog’s nonfiction films as an inspiration. By drawing attention to his opinion, Mr. Bar-Lev said, Mr. Herzog provokes “the opposite effect of what you would think intuitively. He allows you to diverge from his perspective. That’s what I wanted to do.”

And that’s precisely what Mr. Bar-Lev has achieved in the fascinating14-carat but malleable truth of My Kid Could Paint That.

Related links:

Here’s looking at you, “Kid”, by Andrew O’Hehir, Salon (Includes a podcast interview with Bar-Lev, Director)

Prodigy Schmodigy, by Doug Harvey, LA Weekly