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my kid could paint that

My Kid Could Paint That
Director:  Amir Bar-Lev
Cast:  Amir Bar-Lev, Anthony Brunelli, Elizabeth Cohen, Michael Kimmelman, Laura Olmstead, Mark Olmstead, Marla Olmstead

Joanne Ross

July 8, 2008


Four year-old Marla Olmstead is an artistic genius.  Or is she?

In My Kid Could Paint That, director Amir Bar-Lev profiles four-year old Marla Olmstead, an amazingly talented and prolific little girl whose abstract paintings caused a stir in the art world.  A native of Binghamton, New York, Marla and her family—mother Laura, father Mark (coincidentally, a painter himself), and little brother Zane—find themselves in the center of a media storm.

Discovered by gallery owner and artist Anthony Brunelli in 2004 and covered by columnist Elizabeth Cohen in the The Press & Sun Bulletin, Marla’s star rises quickly and soon people were scrambling to buy her paintings.

However, attempts by media outlets such as Inside Edition to capture on tape Marla painting her canvases proves fruitless. There’s always a reason, though, according to her loquacious and glib father Mark who is often with her when she paints.

But some people aren’t buying it—or at least, some are questioning it.  Among the doubting Thomas’s are Jane Pauley, who interviews her parents, and Charlie Rose. His 60 Minutes broadcast of February 23, 2005 ignited the controversy over the authenticity of Marla’s paintings and caused sales of her work to plummet. Is Marla a fraud? Is the father the painter? Will the real artist please stand up?

My Kid Could Paint That is impressive because the subject matter is multi-faceted—it has breadth and depth. It isn’t just a profile of an alleged child prodigy. Through interviews with art critics, collectors, gallery owners, and including media footage of Marla, this film also explores a number of related issues:

  • What is modern art? Does it have any standards, and if so, who determines what they are? Is modern art nothing but a con game?
  • The marketplace and the commoditization of creativity. The lucrative business of buying and selling art and it’s influence on creating an art work’s “street” value versus the piece’s intrinsic value.
  • The artistic intelligencia. At auction houses Christies and Sotheby’s, big bucks are dropped regularly by art collectors, a sometimes gullible bunch eager to abdicate their common sense and their cold, hard cash to be on top of the latest trend.  And all for the dubious pleasure of calling themselves a “member” of the “artistic intelligencia”.
  • Exploitation. Cohen criticized the 60 Minutes story:  “It was really ugly journalism. To think that Charlie Rose would spend an hour on network television undoing someone who is 4 years old . . . You’ve got nothing better to put on a prime time news show?” Her criticism is unfounded. Surely the possibility of fraud is relevant? Unfortunately, the media was focusing on an innocent and happy toddler instead of on her parents, gallery representatives, and collectors whose motivations are at best naïve and at worst, selfish and exploitative.

Even Bar-Lev’s profession comes under scrutiny as well. Several interviewees question the truth of documentaries; a form of filmmaking regarded as objective, but in reality is anything but. In one questionable move, Bar-Lev turns the camera on himself (indeed in an earlier scene he allows Cohen to turn the tables on him) to capture his doubts about the Olmsteads. The director is now part of the subject of his film.  To many documentarians, that is a no-no. How can he remain objective or neutral when his doubts may color his perception?  His decision disturbed me, and yet it did reveal his humanity and his honesty and for that, at least, I applaud him.

In My Kid Could Paint That, Bar-Lev gives us an entertaining, absorbing, and provocative look into the art world and a different version of the American Dream. He allows the story to unfold at a pace steady and sure enough to give each scene and issue time to develop, yet fast enough to propel the narrative forward and create suspense. It’s like a good mystery movie, a kind of “who done it” – no pun intended.

Bar-Lev and Editors Michael Levine and John W. Walter show-off their fine editing skills as well in several dramatic montage sequences involving the auction houses and hate-email scenes. But nowhere do they display it to such riveting effect as they do in the “Flowers” and “Ocean” montage. They place those two paintings by Marla side-by-side in the same frames as her earlier, suspect work.  Differences in style, technique, and manual dexterity become apparent and are hard to overlook.

In the end, you wonder. Little Marla Olmstead--did she or didn’t she? I’ve drawn my own conclusions, as will you when you watch this excellently crafted documentary. Obviously, I’m tipping my hand by saying this, but My Kid Could Paint that really proves there’s truth behind a popular saying:  “A fool and his money is soon parted.”*--JR


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