It's truly fantastic when a film makes you question not just what you know, but even the way you've come to know it. Many films claim to bend reality, but those films are generally fiction and they were never "real" to begin with. A documentary is intended to be fact, a document of what happened shown as closely as possible to what was really true. So what happens when midstream a documentarian suddenly begins to doubt that he's on the right horse?
Such is the question that comes up in My Kid Could Paint That. Director Amir Bar-Lev (Fighter) began by making a movie that asked the time-old question of "What is Art?" but ended up asking himself what he was even doing.
The subject of My Kid Could Paint That is Marla Olmstead, a four-year-old child whose abstract paintings became an art world sensation in 2004. From her home in a small town in New York to the world stage, this tiny impressionist became the subject of much speculation and celebration. Not only did she and her parents, Mark and Laura, attract art collectors with deep pockets and all sorts of reporters from various press venues, but they also attracted Bar-Lev, owner of the one camera that would stay with them throughout the whole process.
A year or so into the Marla sensation, Charlie Rose and "60 Minutes" came knocking, devoting a whole program to the world's littlest artist. Much to the Olmsteads' shock and horror, however, the show that aired included experts brought in to evaluate whether or not Marla really created the paintings credited to her and ultimately suggested that daddy probably helped. This hit the Olmsteads like a heavy bombshell--a moment documented by the local paper and Bar-Lev; their life had become such news, the parents were observed and recorded watching themselves on television. It caused an immediate reaction in the art community and sent damaging ripples through the business of Marla. Her West Coast debut a couple of days later was marred by the bad publicity, and her website's e-mail began to light up with nasty messages.
Even Bar-Lev began to doubt, and it's not long before he has to turn the camera on himself and become a part of the process. He's the last person in the media to remain in the Olmstead circle. Only now, since he no longer trusts them, how much can the Olmstead's trust him? Suddenly all of the introductory exposition about the opposing views of modern abstract art and the titular putdown, that "how can it be high art when a child can do it?" question, acts as a double-edged sword. Maybe a child really couldn't do it, and maybe modern art is the scam that the public sees it as because people like the Olmsteads make it so.
It's fascinating to see how easily public opinion sways. One day, the newspapers are declaring Marla a genius, then there is a TV show saying otherwise, and the next day all the headlines change. The Olmsteads vigorously defend themselves, but outside of the columnist from their hometown paper who started the ball rolling by writing the first Marla article, no one believes them. That reporter not only points fingers at herself for getting this poor child in over her head, but she is crucial to questionning Bar-Lev, too, holding him accountable for his part in the fiasco. The filmmaker tries to explain himself to her, to the Olmsteads, and even to us. He wants to believe, but he needs some proof. The explanation that Marla freezes up or plays to the camera when she knows it's on her is losing traction.
For the rest of the film, Bar-Lev tries to figure it out, and the Olmsteads try to reclaim their name and offer as much evidence as possible. It's a storm we saw coming, and Laura gets the film's most sympathetic portrayal since she worried about possible negative effects fame could have on Marla right from the beginning. Papa Mark is not so lucky. He comes off as a little slimy and defensive--and yet, for every logical accusation, there is a logical explanation. I remained unconvinced either way. Marla obviously does at least some of the work, but how can we ever know if she did all of it? Side-by-side comparisons of the supposed less-accomplished paintings and the ones maybe Dad helped out with don't yield conclusive results. Part of the point of the early dissection of Marla's approach is that she is young and given to instinct rather than over-calculation. Her lack of technique is her greatest asset, so should we be surprised if she's inconsistent? Most professional artists are. Also, who can tell how a five-year-old will paint after a year of public scrutiny?
About the only thing I think everyone will agree on is what a scurrilous character Anthony Brunelli, the gallery owner who has brokered most of Marla's deals, turns out to be. The first on board, he's also the first to jump ship, and then the first to come scuttling back when it's time to set sail again. A photorealist painter who spends up to nine months on one piece, Brunelli hoists himself on his own petard by suggesting that maybe his championing of Marla was one big F-U to modern art from the very beginning, the act of a talented man bitter at being passed over for people he considers lesser painters.
Then again, maybe that's just what Bar-Lev wants us to think about Brunelli. It's certainly his sympathies that lead us to form our conflicting opinions of the Olmsteads, and both parents are self-aware enough to realize when unguarded moments give Bar-Lev exactly what he wants; in turn, Bar-Lev is self-aware enough to include those moments, adding to the overriding conclusion that the only thing we can know for sure is that we just don't know.
My Kid Could Paint That is a movie I instantly wanted to see again as soon as it finished. Not only could I search for clues or insights I may have missed the first time, but it's a story so well told, it would still be fascinating with repeat viewings. Even watching it, I was dreaming of the DVD package. Will they include the "60 Minutes" episode and the Olmstead's homemade rebuttal? Is Marla still painting? What does the family think of My Kid Could Paint That? I don't often wish a documentary had a sequel, but in this case, there is so much more I want to know.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.