My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That
Director: Amir Bar-Levl
Features: Amir Bar-Lev, Anthony Brunelli, Elizabeth Cohen, Michael Kimmelman, Laura Olmstead, Mark Olmstead, Marla Olmstead
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2007
Country: U.S.
My Kid Could Paint That
My Kid Could Paint ThatThe most intriguing documentaries are often the ones that end up being about subjects the filmmakers didn’t originally intend. This is both the inherent danger and lure of documentary filmmaking: the act of capturing life unfolding in front of the camera lens in potentially unexpected ways, offering new narrative avenues and twists that genuinely throw us because we realize the filmmaker had no way of knowing it was coming.

Such is the case with Amir Bar-Lev’s startling and insightfully provocative documentary My Kid Could Paint That, which began as a portrait of a 4-year-old art prodigy and turned into an examination of potential art forgery and the way the ensuing scandal reflects on everything from media sensationalism at the expense of individuals to the pressure parents put on their children to live out their own unfulfilled dreams. When Bar-Lev first approached the Olmstead family about making a documentary, their 4-year-old daughter Marla had become an overnight art sensation. On a lark, her parents, Laura and Mark, had hung some of her abstract paintings in a coffee house in their upstate New York hometown of Binghamton, and they were picked up by an art gallery and sold for increasingly high prices, resulting in a story in The New York Times. And, as we all know, you’re not somebody until you’re mentioned in the Times. And Marla definitely became a somebody.

At this point, the film is focused on a particularly intriguing question: What is art? The film’s humorously confrontational title reflects the thought that probably goes through many of our minds when confronted with abstract art: Given its lack of discernable standards and rules, those criteria by which we are told we can judge greatness, how are we to say it’s not just a bunch of meaningless splatter on a canvas? The short answer is that we can’t and that the only reason the mammoth Jackson Pollacks hanging in the Museum of Modern Art are so revered is because critics and curators decided to bequeath their cultural authority on these works. The fact that a 4-year-old can apparently paint something that well-regarded art critics compare favorably to Pollack and long-time art collectors are willing to part with money in the five-figure range to own leaves us with the uneasy suggestion that abstract art is, in some way, a con.

No so fast, though. Midway through the documentary, the Olmsteads sit down to watch an episode of 60 Minutes about Marla’s accomplishments and are stunned to find that Charlie Rose is not interested in celebrating the apple-cheeked child prodigy; rather, he wants to expose her as a fraud whose father, a Frito-Lay plant night manager who had dabbled in amateur painting most of his life, was responsible for helping Marla polish her work. This immediately casts a pall over the previously celebrated artist tot, and demand for her paintings falls through the floor and collectors start asking questions. Marla’s parents struggle to “prove” that Marla can paint abstract masterpieces by hiding a camera in the ceiling of the basement where Marla paints and later allowing Bar-Lev to videotape her making a painting from start to finish. Both cases are inconclusive at best, as the work Marla does on video does not immediately strike the eyes in the way her other works do. Does this mean she can’t do it? Any accomplished painter will likely admit to dozens of discarded and aborted paintings for every masterpiece, but the weight of proof hangs heavy over Marla’s parents, particularly Mark, who seems too anxious to explain Marla’s behaviors and is visibly agitated when she asks him to help her paint at one point.

Just as she was in the maelstrom surrounding the accusations of forgery, Marla is a strangely abstract character throughout My Kid Could Paint That. At such a young age, she is the very definition of innocence, and part of the film’s power is the uneasy sense we get of her being manipulated by adults who hold some stake in her authenticity or lack thereof. The film is filled with interviews, including numerous sit-downs with Marla’s parents; Elizabeth Cohen, a local reporter who wrote the first story about Marla’s work; art gallery owner Anthony Brunelli, who “discovered” Marla and hosts her shows; and New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. Thus, we get multiple perspectives on Marla’s paintings and the controversy surrounding them, and each of these people comes across as sympathetic and caring, especially Cohen, who seem to regret ever having drawn attention to the little girl. Yet, listening to all these adults, we are aware that the one person who can’t speak for herself is Marla. Too young and too unaware, she must be spoken for, which turns her, purposefully or not, into a pawn. Watching the adults in her life wage cultural war over what might very well be preschool fingerpaintings is both compelling and sad.

My Kid Could Paint That DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround
  • Subtitles English, French, Chinese, Thai
  • Audio commentary by Anthony Brunelli and editor John Walter
  • “Back to Binghamton” featurette
  • “Michael Kimmelman on Art” featurette
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 4, 2008

    As the entire film was shot on low-resolution digital video, the image quality on this disc is something of a moot point. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer maintains the inherent look of the video, as well as a few scenes incorporating stock film footage. The Dolby Digital 5.0 surround soundtrack is quite nice, although the majority of the film consists of interviews that are centered in the front soundstage. The surround speakers are utilized from time to time, for example during the scenes shot at Marla’s art gallery showings, to produce a more inclusive feel.
    It is somewhat strange that Amir Bar-Lev does not contribute to the audio commentary, but it’s still worth a listen. Art gallery owner Anthony Brunelli, who is portrayed extensively in the documentary, and co-editor John Walter discuss the making of the film and its implications. Bar-Lev’s absence on the commentary is made up for by his presence in the 35-minute “Back to Binghamton” featurette, which is essentially a mini-documentary about the repercussions of My Kid Could Paint That’s release. It consists of deleted scenes, outtakes, and other bits that help flesh out some of the issues raised in the documentary. There is also footage from the film’s Sundance premiere, at which Elizabeth Cohen reads a statement from Laura Olmstead essentially damning the film and its portrait of her family, and a Q&A session following a screening of the film at Brunelli’s gallery. “Michael Kimmelman on Art” is an additional 12 minutes of interview footage with the New York Times art critic.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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