Look, if your punk kid wants to have a painting competition, Judge Erich Asperschlager says, "Bring it on!"
"It's not about art to me, though. It's about my family's reputation. I
need you to believe me. I mean, that's…that's what I'm after. I want to
take a polygraph. I do. I want to get this done. I never want to revisit it
again in my life."
Director Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That is a fascinating and brutally honest documentary that hit home for me. And I mean that literally. My wife and I live a mere 90 minutes from Binghamton, N.Y., where most of the film takes place (believe me, out here that's not far). My mother's family lives there. I've been to, and through, the area many times.
Too bad geographic proximity doesn't make the film's events any less confusing.
It's hard to imagine a compelling story without "good" and "bad" guys. Even in documentaries, there are usually people the director wants the audience to root for and against. But what happens when the filmmaker can't decide which side his subjects are on?
In its brief 83 minutes, My Kid Could Paint That touches on a variety of topics: media distortion, the price of fame, parental responsibility, public perceptions of modern art, and the subjective nature of storytelling. What begins as a human interest story about an exceptional child becomes something more complicated and tragic than anyone (including the director) could have imagined.
Facts of the Case
Abstract painter Marla Olmstead had her first exhibition at a coffee shop in her family's hometown of Binghamton, N.Y. She was 3 years old. Soon after, local gallery owner Anthony Brunelli gave the toddler a show. That's when things took off. The local newspaper ran a front page article about Marla's work. Then The New York Times picked up the story. Soon, Marla Olmstead was international news. She and her parents, Mark and Laura, made appearances on The Today Show, The Jane Pauley Show, and CBS Sunday Morning. Her paintings were selling out, even at upwards of $300,000. That was before 60 Minutes aired their version of the story.
In that February 2005 episode, Charlie Rose asked child psychologist Ellen Winner to evaluate hidden camera footage of Marla working on a painting. Differences between the on-camera painting and those hanging in Brunelli's gallery—as well as what appeared to be coaching from her father—led Winner to conclude that Marla was not the creative force behind the paintings that had brought her family both fame and wealth. Overnight, the Olmsteads and Brunelli went from media darlings to small-town outcasts—accosted on the street and lambasted on the internet. Sales of Marla's work dried up. Her collectors were furious.
But what really happened? Was Marla, as her parents contend, merely unable to produce under the pressure of being filmed, or is her father the real painter? And what about Anthony Brunelli? Was he some kind of Svengali, using the Olmsteads to make a quick buck, or was his interest in Marla's work genuine?
And is there any way to know for sure?
Bar-Lev became interested in Marla Olmstead around the time The New York Times ran their first article about her, in September of 2004. He began the film with the idea that the success of a 4-year-old painter would be a unique way to explore the current state of modern art. The positive public reaction to Marla's work was certainly in stark contrast to popular opinions about abstract and conceptual art. To some, Marla's talent suggested divine intervention. Others gravitated to Marla because they could enjoy her paintings without the lingering suspicion that someone was putting one over on them. Art, especially non-representational art, is confusing to plenty of people. There doesn't appear to be any set criteria for one piece being any better than the next. Add in the high prices these paintings command, and it's easy to understand the general perception of modern art as an elaborate con game. Marla was more than a good story. As an artist without pretense, Marla made it "safe" to buy one of her paintings. Unfortunately, when 60 Minutes aired their story, the fears that Marla's perceived innocence had put to rest made it all to easy for people to believe the worst about the Olmsteads and Brunelli.
But this film isn't really about art, or even whether Marla Olmstead is a fraud. It's about how easy it is to take the stories we're told by the media at face value. What does it say about our mediated culture that the story of an upstate New York family and their artistically inclined daughter inspired so much excitement, and hatred? Why do we find the story so fascinating? And, more importantly, why is it so easy to believe the Olmsteads are liars?
We might wag our fingers at the 24-hour cable news networks and their cycle of latching onto, then tossing aside, stories to satisfy short attention spans, but that doesn't make us immune to the lure of news as entertainment. Public figures—whether they be leaders of the free world or the latest fallen pop icon—are often treated like characters on TV's longest running reality show. This is certainly an easy way to make sense of a never-ending onslaught of media, as it requires the least amount of effort. But life is never that simple. Just ask the Olmsteads.
Through the kind of serendipity most documentary filmmakers would kill for, director Amir Bar-Lev began his project when Marla was barely more than a local interest story. As a result, he had the rare chance to film her rise to fame and fall from grace from beginning to end. He was there for Marla's gallery openings and her TV appearances. The Olmsteads gave him open access to their home and their lives. He was with Mark and Laura when they first saw the 60 Minutes exposé. He watched them go from heroes to pariahs, trying desperately to prove their innocence and wondering whether it had been a good idea to let Bar-Lev into their lives at all. Whatever you think of Marla's parents, they clearly didn't understand how damaging opening themselves to public scrutiny would be. When Laura breaks down and walks out of the final interview—bitterly telling the director she's just given him "documentary gold"—it shows how blurred the line between onscreen drama and the reality of a ruined life can get.
The smartest thing Bar-Lev does is allow himself to be a character in the film. We see him interacting with the people he's filming—answering their questions, and sharing his conflicted feelings about possibly hurting those he's grown to respect and care for. He didn't have to do that. It's his film. He could just as easily have edited himself out and simply told the story he wanted to tell. But he doesn't. He accepts responsibility for his decisions, and admits that his film isn't an objective truth. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman tells Bar-Lev bluntly that his documentary, like all art, is ultimately "a lie"—a construction based on his interpretation of events. Bar-Lev has a point of view, of course (if he didn't, he couldn't do his job). But, by lifting the curtain on the filmmaking process and admitting to being confused, he does the audience a favor—forcing us to think about what we've seen and draw our own conclusions.
The disc's bonus materials provide no more answers than the film does, but they're just as compelling. Instead of giving a commentary track to the director, the honor goes to the odd-couple pairing of Anthony Brunelli and film editor John Walker. If you expect Brunelli to spend the whole film complaining about how he's portrayed, you'll be disappointed. Though he doesn't have any problems "setting the record straight" when he feels it necessary, he has mostly positive things to say. Still, the track is an excellent companion to a second viewing of the film, with juicy behind-the-scenes stories and the occasional lively debate.
The best of the extras is the 35-minute "Back to Binghamton." Though billed as outtakes and deleted scenes, the piece could more accurately be described as a documentary about the documentary. By combining footage from a Sundance Q&A with sequences excised from the final film, Bar-Lev gives himself the chance to explain his intentions for the project and the struggles (both internal and external) he faced along the way.
The final feature is an extended interview with Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times. Kimmelman is fascinating to listen to. He eloquently defends modern art, and explains why he thinks so many people distrust it. Whether you love art or are completely confused by it, Kimmelman at least makes the whole thing easier to understand.
Bar-Lev shot most of My Kid Could Paint That on video, so the overall picture quality isn't great. The difference between the various kinds of footage is uneven. The picture is occasionally soft, and some of it looks on par with a home movie. If that bothers you, you probably missed the point of the film. The audio fares a little better. Music is used sparingly but effectively, and there are some clever licensed song choices including Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," but the 5.0 surround mix isn't really key to telling the story.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Depending on your point of view, Bar-Lev's refusal to come down firmly on one side or the other is either commendable or infuriating. Is it fair to wash your hands of your own film? I can see why people would criticize him for what they see as abdicating his journalistic responsibility, but after seeing the way the media treated the Olmsteads, it's refreshing to see Bar-Lev acknowledge the complexity of the situation.
Though this is a film about a child, it is not necessarily for children. Older kids might find it interesting, but parents should be take note of My Kid Could Paint That's PG-13 rating, for strong language. Ninety-nine percent of the film is family-friendly. The 1 percent that isn't comes from two scenes: footage of the Armory Show in New York City showing "edgy" art like a neon sign alternating between two four-letter words ("Holy" and one that begins with "F"); and a montage of nasty e-mails the Olmsteads received after 60 Minutes. Neither are out of place, but they may give some potential viewers pause.
On one level, My Kid Could Paint That tells the fascinating story of a highly successful 4-year-old artist who may not have been responsible for her own work. If that's how you want to enjoy the film, I'd recommend it just as highly. But for those who want to dig deeper, director Amir Bar-Lev raises important questions: Why is news treated like entertainment? Can a complicated story have only one truth? And is the artist more important than the art?
There's one question I purposely left off the list: Did Marla Olmstead paint those pictures? I'd rather let you come to your own conclusions than tell you what I think—because sometimes truth, like art, is best left to individual interpretation.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary With Anthony Brunelli And Film Editor John Walker
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