My Kid Could Paint That

| October 14, 2007

Every good mystery hungers in some way to be solved. A question presents itself, clues are hunted down and answers are deduced from them to somehow answer that initial question. Not all mysteries can be solved, though. Sometimes the facts are distorted, or a key piece of evidence is missing–the puzzle is incomplete if you will. That isn’t to say that usually there isn’t some opinion on what the answer might be, given the recognizable facts.
My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary by Amir Bar Levy, wants you to believe it’s a mystery. The question begging to be solved: Who painted these high priced canvasses? The only problem is that Levy resists the answer right in front of him. He resists the very answer he seems to be leaning towards. Instead, he wallows in the grey area of asking the question, and ultimately, what the effect of asking such a question has on him. It’s an unfortunate choice, that is simply more than this documentary can take.
The artist at the center of My Kid Could Paint That‘s mystery is Marla Olmstead. She’s only four years old when her work creates a big splash in the modern art world and begins to sell for superstar prices. Touted as a child prodigy, her story attracts immediate attention from the national media, including the New York Times, and her seemingly sweet and naïve parents, Mark and Laura Olmstead, find their lives and their family thrust into the spotlight.
At the start of all of this the Olmstead’s grant Levy full access to their lives. He spends the better part of a year in the intimate space of their Binghamton, New York home; as well as Marla’s splashy, big gallery openings and talk show appearances. He gets as close as he can to Marla, and to her younger brother, Zane. Even sleeping over at the house at one point, due in part to the insistence of Laura and Mark, to capture more naturally Marla’s daily routine and to seek some answers to painful questions that were raised in the course of her story.
This extreme closeness plays well in the first half of the documentary. It’s readily apparent that Levy initially set out to do a piece on the nature of Modern Art and its oft-derided identity in our cultural landscape. Even the title, My Kid Could Paint That, speaks to this first focus for the picture. He captures Marla, an innocent child almost oblivious to what she’s achieved at the art gallery openings. He interviews collectors who extol the virtue of her work and intersperses that with ruminations on what modern art is by New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman.
Then, about halfway through the documentary, that same closeness turns on Levy when a Sixty Minutes II segment refutes the authenticity of Marla’s work. The implication the piece makes quite clearly is that Marla’s father, Mark, a frustrated, amateur painter, helped her. Offered into evidence is expert testimonial and that a Sixty Minutes hidden camera couldn’t capture Marla at work on a canvas.
Marla’s subsequent descent is as rapid as her ascent. Her parents find themselves vilified. Unfortunately, Levy can’t resist inserting himself into the piece at this juncture. At one telling moment, he interviews himself in his car as he leaves the Olmsteads and admits that he now has serious reservations about the veracity of Marla’s story; yet he can’t admit that to the Olmsteads for fear of what it might mean to the documentary. It’s a chilling moment to me, an example of premeditated exploitation.
It’s this moment that signals the undoing of My Kid Could Paint That‘s second half. From here on out it’s almost difficult to watch, as we’re aware of Levy’s deeper priority–keeping the documentary going, as opposed to illuminating the truth. It all grows more complicated as he flirts with answers and his opinion, but steadfastly refuses to commit to any of them. He offers evidence. He submits to make a tape of his own of Marla at work. Eventually, still fully trusting him, Mark and Laura Olmstead pin their hopes on Levy and his documentary helping them to refute the accusations. Sadly, Levy intimates to outsiders that he may have changed his mind about Marla, but steadfastly refuses to indicate his true feelings to the Olmsteads, even when the chance arises and it seems necessary that he should instead of lingering and exploiting their misery.
It’s a regrettable choice that Amir Bar Levy makes; refusing to offer his answers or thoughts on the mystery he concocts in the first half of My Kid Could Paint That. By the time he forces himself to the center of his own documentary, we’re already toying with our own answers and ideas to the central question of the whodunit behind Marla’s work. It’s terrible to see the devastation on Mark and Laura Olmstead’s faces when he finally does come forward, way too late to atone for his actions. In the end it mars what could have been a powerful piece on the nature of modern art, genius and prodigies. Instead, in the end, we’re left with a film about a filmmaker and the damage he can do with his camera when he puts his own needs ahead of his story.

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