The Reeler


October 4, 2007

My Kid Could Paint That

Director Bar-Lev cops out on heady questions he raises about truth and art

"One of the fundamental problems that people have with art...[is] that there's some assumption that art has an obligation to explain itself," says New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman early on in My Kid Could Paint That. "And if it doesn't, then it's the art's fault. But modernism wanted to tell a variety of stories. If we're talking about abstract paintings, there are still stories being told." Maybe, he suggests, those stories are more about the person making the painting than the painting itself: Context is everything, or close.

No wonder, then, that the saga of Marla Olmstead touched a nerve. Four years old when her paintings emerged into the spotlight, her work was acclaimed as exceptional for any age. Yet suspicion lingered that her age -- rather than her work -- was the real story. Marla’s story blew up in 2004, and a media backlash ensued. Charlie Rose decimated her on 60 Minutes II, insinuating that her paintings were, at best, the touched-up work of father Mark and, at worst, the result of savvy parents faking her work for media attention and the attendant cash. Heady questions -- about the construction of truth, the nature of abstract art, media feeding frenzies -- emerge.

Considered within the context of the contemporary doc landscape, My Kid fares well-- it tells a story worth telling, not just a tabloid outtake magnified out of all proportion (Crazy Love), weakly thought-out political activism (whatever is playing at the Quad), or a stunt film aspiring to the heady heights of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Director Amir Bar-Lev charts out a smooth narrative track, beginning with small primers both on Marla's rise and the general state of abstract art's public profile. Invited into the Olmsteads' house in their defense, there's plenty of oddly non-revealing footage of Marla, both at work and in the process of "painting." (Bar-Lev never gets the exonerating footage of Marla painting a whole characteristic painting start to finish; the tiny girl herself is a minor part of the film, understandably unable to speak for herself.)

"I'm smart and you're not," is Elizabeth Cohen's -- the reporter who first broke Marla's story -- explanation of how Jackson Pollock made her mother feel. Marla's work provides a major lure for art collectors who may or may not know what they're seeing, as well as a media story designed to gratify those who have felt left out by every potentially absurd art-world development; her seemingly unconscious talent calls the whole premise of abstract art into question. (It's a topic also explored at length in last year's art-and-authenticity documentary Who the @#%* is Jackson Pollock?)

It's a minor, potentially interesting controversy, but Bar-Lev firmly refuses to take sides. Halfway through, there's a startling shift in perspective: The previously off-camera filmmaker is dragged into the picture, with Cohen breaking the fourth wall and telling him that the family is nervous about how he'll treat them. Later, Kimmelman offers to state Bar-Lev's position for him, a cop-out of the highest order: "Your documentary on some level is going to be a lie. It's your version of things. I'll say that right now if you'd like." Please do, replies Bar-Lev.

But there is no version, just a series of contradictory viewpoints and vérité footage served weakly, with no commitment to any conclusion. Not that a firm resolution is needed, but consider: Capturing the Friedmans (another film built, albeit to a greater degree, on inherently suspect footage generated by the subjects themselves -- the Olmsteads' own footage of Marla at work becomes key) slowly, patiently constructed one version of the truth, then undermined it with an entirely different piece of evidence. Something bad had definitely happened, but the truth is suggested as complicated and unknowable.

Bar-Lev's unwillingness to advance a hypothesis at any point suggests something lesser: the truth is complicated, but irrelevant. There's no there there; maybe nothing important happened. The film's advocates seem to love this. As with the art, the vaguer the film is, the more room there is for interpretation and commentary on any of the aspects of contemporary life it touches upon. Maybe it's about parenting, or media feeding cycles, or etc.. But to this viewer, My Kid seems unfinished, a sketch rather than a drawing, a multiplicity of perspectives without a coherent focal point.

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