Saturday, March 08, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev, 2007) [6]
This film holds particular interest for me since its subject, a 4-year-old abstract painter named Marla Olmstead, is from here in Binghamton. I have never met the Olmsteads or have seen Marla' work but story that Bar-Lev tells in his documentary is well know to me. Perhaps that's why I don't see this as engrossing as some reviews have stated is because I know the story fairly well to begin with. That and Bar-Lev never really settles on one topic instead sending himself off into various topics and never really coming back to a concrete point. The film at its center is trying to capture the "story" of Marla rather than a portrait of her and her family. Granted this is tricky since she is only four and seems to have no real interest in all the hoopla surrounding her. What is most interesting for me is the issues of modern art that a situation like Marla bring up. That a 4-year-old can create supposed masterworks of modern art bring up the idea that it's nothing more than a scam and could be done by just about anybody. NY Times art critic Michael Kauffman is present to continually hammer this point home. Another fascinating aspect of it is this idea that modern art sells not by the quality of its work but the story surrounding it. Marla's paintings are selling for so much and attracting so much attention because of who Marla is, not so much how good they actually are. I only have a base interest in modern art so I don't really know if they're good or bad but that really doesn't matter because it's the story behind them driving it. When the 60 minutes piece basically debunks Marla as the creator of her works, the demand drops with it. This is where Bar-Lev should have stuck but instead he goes into the more personal interest vein of the story. Mark Olmstead as well as Anthony Brunelli, Marla's de facto agent, appear to relish the attention the paintings are getting without any regard for what it's doing to Marla and her family. It has the whiff of exploitation around it that never appears good in any situation. Bar-Lev then almost ruins the film by having to interject himself into it by questioning not only the authenticity of Marla's work but also his own moral role in the story. He recognizes he's using the Olmsteads for his own personal gain and begins to have second thoughts about the whole thing. If that's the case, he should have just packed up his camera and headed home. Instead, he muddies his film down with his own introspection which isn't needed. He's just as guilty of exploiting the story of Marla as the other adults around her. By the end, the question of did Marla really create these paintings is a mute point, not just because Bar-Lev avoids addressing the issue but because he loses focus of the strongest elements of his film that have nothing to do with Marla or himself.

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