by Rebecca Wiener
My Kid Could Paint That, 82 minutes
dir. Amir Ben-Lev
I’m a big fan of documentaries, mostly because truth can really be stranger than fiction, and even when it’s not, people are still totally weird. Errol Morris’s portrait of the man who invented the modern electric chair, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., is one of my favorites (and he’s a Holocaust denier? Get outta here!).
I also adore Michael Apted’s Up series in which he revisits a group of British schoolchildren every seven years, examining the country’s often stifling class system. (The poor kids cheat and get divorced! The rich kids have huge country houses and cheat and get divorced!) And I understand that a documentary is not an unbiased document, that the filmmaker projects his own ideas onto the subject, that a story is inherently untrue because stories are constructs our minds create to make information more interesting or memorable. I mean, come on, I’ve taken my share of film classes and read my share of pop psych books (Stumbling on Happiness anyone? Come for the cheery cover design, stay for the argument for why kids make you miserable.)
So I’m wary when a film is too excited about exploring the way the documentarian affects the story. It seems a little too collegiate, a little too duh, a little too “I couldn’t tackle this issue by using traditional cinematic tools because I don’t really know what they are.” Amir Ben-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary about a little girl whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars, is about 50 minutes of lovely and about 32 minutes of frustrating.
“Good Friday” — Elvis Perkins (mp3)
A quick summary from a Village Voice review of the film that completely misses the point (I know, I can’t believe I even bothered to read that desiccated skeleton of a publication either):
An irresistible subject for a documentary: The charming celebrity of Marla Olmstead, an artist from upstate New York whose talent for impossibly confident abstractions triggered a media frenzy and five-figure price tags. Unveiled at a local coffee shop, Marla’s middling AbEx doodles might not have inspired more than a glance at the milk-and-sugar station were it not for the astonishing revelation that their maker was all of four years old. Supposedly.
An unexpected development: Growing suspicions that Mark Olmstead, Marla’s father and an amateur painter himself, may have lent more than encouraging words to his daughter’s endeavor. Dazzled by the media attention (and, one presumes, the money), he was stumped by the inevitable backlash, unable to offer convincing proof of his daughter’s sole authorship.
An inevitable talking head: “There’s this large idea out there that abstract art and modern art in general has no standards, no truths,” says Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times and running commentator on the cultural implications of the Marla mystery in My Kid Could Paint That. “That if a child could do it, it pulls the veil off this con game.”
Yes, yes. That is what director Amir Ben-Lev started out making this movie about. And it’s a fascinating story, one that Ben-Lev tells with warmth and restraint. Marla is adorable and not too JonBenet Ramsey and her parents are endearingly—and somewhat surprisingly—attractive, articulate and self-aware (her mom is a dentist’s assistant and her father is a night manager at Frito-Lay in Binghamton, NY, like whoa).
Halfway through the film, Ben-Lev drives the train off the track into what I’m sure he believes is more intellectually challenging territory. (Actually, I attended a press screening of this and heard a Q&A afterwards, so I know that’s what he believes. It turned out to also be a screening for some psychoanalytic student film night and the audience was filled with tweed, thick glasses and German accents. But I digress.)
Ben-Lev starts exploring how the media—himself included—have twisted the Olmsteads’ story into the shape they like best. One particularly opinionated local journalist accuses the media of ADD, saying that they get bored with one version and sooner or later, need to flip the switch. Of course, I don’t take issue with this idea; it’s undeniably true. I just wish Bar-Lev had addressed the topic with some filmic grace.
Instead, he inserts a scene where, on the verge of tears, he wonders if he’s being fair to the family and wrings his hands over why he has come into their lives only to contribute to the pain and doubt. And for the rest of the film, Bar-Lev is a character with as much dimension and far more power than Marla and her parents. What is fascinating is that they begin to eye his camera with caution and, towards the end, outright fear. What is frustrating is that Bar-Lev cannot leave it at that. He speaks on camera, softly, nervously, with a slight stutter. He wants us to like him, identify with him, sigh over how tricky it is to be an objective journalist.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a film worth seeing, if only for the story of Marla Olmstead. But don’t expect revelation. Netflix it in a few months and wait for Bar-Lev’s next, and most likely more mature, project.
Rebecca Wiener is a senior editor of This Recording, a sometime child artist and a full-time heartless media mogul.
Action Painters myspace
Action Painters website
“Absolutely Clear” — Action Painters (mp3)
“Sooner or Later” — Action Painters (mp3)
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