The title of Amir Bar-Lev's documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, comes from a sarcastic comment about abstract painting asserting that swirls of pigment on canvas are childish and uninformed. Bar-Lev's subject, 4-year-old painter and media darling Marla Olmstead, turns that assumption on its head, and he uses her rise to prominence to question the way value is placed on abstract art, and how much a cult of personality affects perception of the work.
Two things seem certain at the onset: the filmmaker's skepticism about a modern art establishment fueled by pretense and (if you have to ask) snobbery, and his faith in Marla as an art naïf, freely expressing her creative impulses unencumbered by expectation or the corruption of the marketplace. During filming, his beliefs are sorely challenged, even when he finds himself in the uncomfortable role of the Olmstead family's redeemer.
Marla's ascent was rapid, and her fall precipitous. In a few quick strokes, the toddler from Binghamton, N.Y., went from painting in her diapers to having successful gallery shows (with asking prices zooming from $250 to $25,000). Fans and collectors see her colorful, jubilant canvases as the epitome of childhood innocence, and some quickly dubbed Marla a child prodigy, with pictorial sophistication to rival the Abstract Expressionists.
Then came the doubts. As the media juggernaut was at full-steam ahead, the Olmsteads were profiled on 60 Minutes II. Using hidden camera footage, and the unchallenged opinion of one expert, Charlie Rose and company set out to debunk Marla as the sole creator of her work, and strongly imply that her father, Mark, is the real artist.
Now Bar-Lev begins to look more closely at her parents, the jokey and breezy Mark, who dismisses damning comments about Marla with blithe insouciance, and the cautious and concerned Laura, who wants to build a protective barrier between her precocious daughter and an increasingly hostile public.
The uncertain filmmaker turns to his most articulate interviewees to try to encapsulate this complex tale: Elizabeth Cohen, columnist at Binghamton's Press & Sun-Bulletin and the first to cover Marla, wonders about the impact of a childhood lost; while chief art critic for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, sees a larger narrative about perception and representation.
It's telling that in our fame-driven culture, no one questions the initial impulse to expose Marla to the spotlight. These adults are more concerned with painting her story in their own image.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2-3, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4. Call 313-833-3237.
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