September 22, 2007

REVIEW: My Kid Could Paint That (A)

Background: The title of the film is a well-known joke among skeptics of abstract art. How can so much money and critical praise be generously given to paintings that seemingly require no skill? I'll admit that I've always been on the questioning side of this debate. I'm sorry, I don't "get" abstract art. Jackson Pollock's paintings don't impress me, nor do I think he had some deep philosophical symbolism splattered all over a canvas. So, I'm a skeptic. Naturally then, I was intrigued to see Amir Bar-Lev's documentary about a young girl who is hailed as the next great abstract artist while she's still in diapers. Child prodigies are typically known as great musicians or mathematicians, but you can objectively measure those skills. Does everyone agree on abstract art? I thought the whole point was not to.

Synopsis: In Binghamton, NY, 4 year-old Marla Olmstead begins attracting local attention for abstract paintings that, according to her parents, she has completed all by herself. A local art dealer hosts a show for Marla's paintings, and soon enough she is all over the national media and attending glamorous gallery openings of her work as far away as Los Angeles. Her paintings, first sold at a local coffee shop, soon sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Bar-Lev sets up the film with Marla's story before moving into a debate on the value of abstract art. Is the work done by prodigious artists important because of the person or the painting? In other words, would Marla's work be so amazing if she were, say, 30 years older and a parent of two kids? An interesting question, because suspicions are soon aroused - especially after a critical 60 Minutes expose - that Marla may not actually be working entirely alone on her paintings. Her father, a painter himself and the person seeking the most marketing opportunities for Marla, denies time and again that he is involved in any way with Marla's work. But then why, after many failed attempts, can no one get video footage of Marla completing a masterwork? Her parents offer home video of Marla independently finishing a painting, but anyone can see, especially under careful examination, that her work looks different than the ones that have been sold under her name. So are her parents lying when they say they haven't helped her? There's no proof they have, but there is also no proof they haven't. Who do you believe?

I Loved:
+ That the debate is left unresolved - as it should in a documentary.
+ The section debating the worthiness of abstract art.

I Liked:
+ The honest involvement of Amir Bar-Lev (relative to somebody like Michael Moore).
+ The comparison sequence where we see different parts of Marla's paintings next to each other.
+ The mocking giggles in the theater when the rich couple drove off in their Hummer.

I Disliked:
- The rich couple driving off in their Hummer, and the other collectors who gushed over Marla's work - one man going so far as to interpret parts of her painting in unimaginable detail.
- Not knowing more about Marla's dad's artistic background.

I Hated:
- That the debate is left unresolved. Yeah, that's how it should be, but it's still frustrating!

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 28/30 = 93% = A

Last Word: Amir Bar-Lev did a Q & A after the screening I was at, which shed a lot more light on the details of certain scenes, and also probably colored my impression of the movie. I definitely respect his work - even when asked directly about what he believed to be true, he wouldn't budge. He lets the film speak for itself, and it says so much you won't really know what you even heard - did this person actually say that? One criticism I can offer of My Kid Could Paint That stems from that fact that Amir Bar-Lev really stumbled on the story-as-scandal. You can tell that he originally meant to just frame an argument about abstract art, but it of course turned into an amazing story of truth vs. fiction with hundreds of thousands of dollars hanging in the balance. The only problem is that it doesn't really transition well, and I kind of think he should have made two separate films. That being said, My Kid Could Paint That is one of the best documentaries I've seen in a long time primarily because there is no right answer forced upon the viewer. You are 100% able to decide for yourself, and it is an incredible feat for Bar-Lev to have allowed that freedom of choice.

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