Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Review of My Kid Could Paint That

When I took my art history class back in school, I had little affection for my teacher, and she had little for me. I'm not sure who started it, but she imposed a cantankerous, snooty depression on me and, in return, I read her as vacuous and sycophantic. Everybody in class had a cultural hard-on for Jackson Pollack, so we had to ask this discussion about one of his modernist wanna-bes, Willem de Kooning, maybe:

Me: But I could do that!

Teacher: But you didn't do that.

Me: If I'd known it could be a museum, I would have done that.

Which misses the point, of course, that it sure seems like the value in modern art has little to do with its content and everything to do with the creature behind the paintbrush. ABC News's professional nuance-killer John Stossel took a stab at clearing the art community's eyes with a 20/20 report challenging art critics to pick his child's finger paintings out of an abstract expressionist line-up; after being punk'd, the critics called Stossel a philistine and he, in his way, called them whatever the 2005-English translation of "ivory tower elitists" was, resolving everything. Amir Bar-Lev's doc My Kid Could Paint That covers much, maybe more, of the Stossel territory, but with an eye to the truths and stories underlying the scribbles, and without being a total dick about it, Bar-Lev's film quietly morphs into a brilliant and devastating look at how we claim ownership of those truths and the practical consequences reaching way beyond some rabble-rouser's mock indignance.

In 2004, the contemporary art world first met Marla Olmstead, whose gimmick, beyond her acrylic-on-canvas, was that she was born in the year 2000. My guess is that every suburban parent has their kid's watercolor art hanging all over the home and fawns over it to anyone who'll listen; the only obvious difference with Marla is that her hobbyist painter sets her down in front of a primed canvas instead of paper. Marla's work moved from her refrigerator to a friend's coffee shop, just as a gaffe, then to a new nearby gallery, the local paper, and soon, an article by the chief art critic for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, who's a talking head in the film. Amir Bar-Lev wants to examine what gives art its value, and Marla's works — which sell for thousands of dollars — are the flashpoint in the debate. Marla paints vibrant, random squiggles, the sort of art you see hanging in the waiting room of someone who charges $400 an hour, and she gives cynics ammunition to point at modern art and peek behind the curtain, my kid really could paint that. Her collectors look at the same doodles and see a painting free of the cynicism and alienation endemic in modern art. Bar-Lev and his camera play the moderator and chronicle the Story of Marla — or, a Story of Marla — through her first solo show, her New York opening, her appearance on the Jane Pauley show.

What lurks in the background, then hulks, are the cameras pointed at Marla as someone off-screen decided she'd be the global sensation of the art world. Bar-Lev, probably the most perpetual camera, insinuates himself with theOlmsteads , who smile when they're being watched but can't hide the tension between mom and dad, Laura and Mark. They clearly love Marla, but Laura is timorous and low-key, and when charismatic but slimy gallery owner (and outmoded painter) AnthonyBrunelli takes a liking to Marla's work, he and stage dad Mark railroad her into pursuing Marla's path to fame and fortune. Bar-Lev, and about a thousand other cameramen, catch these bizarre gallery juxtapositions: rich collectors browsing and drinking champagne, Mark hobnobbing, Laura in over her head, and Marla, who could not care less that Mr. and Mrs.Bigshot are looking at her work. There may be some sly commentary on the nature of fame and the way outside expectations influence us — especially with Mark, who genuinely wants his daughter to be happy and is also genuinely certain that being the littlest bigmuckety -muck on the scene is what makes her happy. There's a telling scene that's the working class family's first ride in a limousine; the adults are elated and the kids are thoroughly unimpressed, and as Marla's value grows so does the fawning....

...and then Charlie Rose devotes 60 Minutes to an exposé — nobody ever says it, but the allegation is that Mark "touched up" Marla's paintings. The crash is fascinating, and seems to answer Bar-Lev's original question, but by now he, theOlmsteads, and the film are so far beyond that as the media vultures pick at the Story of Marla's second chapter and everybody's roles shift to fit the new angle. Bar-Lev is as discrete as he can be from the subject, but he realizes that he too doesn't have the video of Marla completing a painting start to finish that he needs for his film, and it dawns on him that as another guy recording theOlmsteads, he's been assigned a role in their drama. By the third act, Bar-Lev is himself on camera, in just as deep as the Olmsteads , trying to reconcile his nagging skepticism with the family's need for redemption, his objectivity with his clear fondness for these people, and his art with the moral and ethical implications of the subtle quantum mechanical changes he's forcing on this child by watching her and bringing her an audience. All he can do is make choices — what to film, what (if anything) to present — that are all at odds with the truth, whatever it is.

It's a testament to Bar-Lev's journalistic (bad word) skills that, in my opinion, he arrives at the sort of nuanced truth that makes absolutely nobody happy, and he's straightforward when he says that the media monster Marla's artist fortunes turn on won't even try to accept something outside its false dichotomy. There is a scene where Marla's painting on camera and she tells her dad, "Draw a face," and I winced while Mark made half-assed excuses for not getting down on his hands and needs and playing with his child. I hope Mark really did get his hands dirty in those disputed paintings, because they are stories, not of Marla's genius (I don't believe she's a prodigy) but of her play. Here's the thing: Bar-Lev has an editing bay and pares down hundreds of hours of footage down to ninety minutes, those hundreds of hours of footage are only what happened when and where the camera was rolling... There is a truth, but it's too complicated to capture fully, so I guess there always is the possibility that Marla's paintings really are free of cynicism and alienation.