Last night, I watched the documentary film My Kid Could Paint That. It chronicles the rise and fall and rise and fall(?) of child-painting phenom Marla Olmstead. The filmmaker, Amir Bar-Lev, was lucky enough to begin making the film early enough in Marla’s “career” to chronicle both her rise and her fall (after a 60 Minutes II Expose).
Originally intending the film as a piece to examine the meaning and value of modern art when filtered through the lens of a 4-year old, Bar-Lev felt obligated to shift focus to addressing the controversy. As his own doubts begin the bias the scope, he steps before the lens, directly telling the audience his thoughts and concerns. The film closes with his attempt to provide an objective look at the situation, but his view on the subject remains apparent and encourages the viewer to side with him.
What is most interesting about this film is not the arc of the story – “documentary gold” as Marla’s mother calls it – but rather the concepts that are tangentially explored and exposed. The actual story, which ends up addressing whether or not any “fraud” or misleading activities have occurred, make for an interesting and compelling whodunnit, but do so without a deep examination of the human psyche.
Other off-the-cuff statements by the reporter who first covered the story, the local gallery owner who acted as the family’s agent, and the family themselves regarding the nature of their relationships, the attention generated by the story, and the meaning of art itself are what make this a wonderful film.
Here are some of the basic themes:
1. Art is at least as much about the artist as it is about the art. As the controversy builds, pieces that were admired on the walls of collectors became sources of anger and betrayal despite the fact that the art itself remained constant. All of the work was shown because of the story rather than the work. Without the story, the work loses value and meaning.
2. It is difficult to turn away media attention and to deny fame. The family struggles at balancing their own privacy and happiness with the promise of fame and fortune. Both Marla and her younger brother Zane say little throughout the course of the documentary, but what few words come out are tremendously insightful.
3. People believe the media without question. As soon as the 60 Minutes expose aired, the family became inundated with nasty, threatening, defamatory, and just plain rude e-mails. As compelling as the 60 Minutes piece was, it certainly did not allow the other side of the story to be told. Virtually any story can be given any slant and no opportunity or forum exists for rebuttal. On the same note, the testimony of a so-called “expert” is automatically considered absolutely correct. I can say from experience that “experts” within the sciences have massive disagreements about just about everything, from the fundamental to the niche.
4. The filmmaker and the reporter discussed the struggles they had exposing the family to attention and criticism. The filmmaker films himself driving home at one point and discusses his concern that he essentially has to accuse the family of being dishonest after they have let him into their home and trusted him to portray them in a positive light. There is even significant discussion after the 60 Minutes piece about whether the film will also betray them.
5. Art is a representation of the truth, but never the truth itself. As the film closes, the director admits his bias directly and also adds discussions with prominent figures in the film about bias in art. The movie closes out addressing how all art is inherently a representation of truth, but not truth itself.
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” – Albert Einstein
“Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit.” – Edward R. Murrow