Saturday, December 25, 2010


The following is a newly extended version of a review that was originally written December 2007 and was inspired by my recent viewing/review of "Exit Through The Gift Shop."

Written, Produced and Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

To paraphrase the most insightful words of a cautious journalist in the film, this is NOT a movie about a child, but one about grownups.

For eleven years, I taught at a preschool which utilized an unorthodox Italian educational curriculum that essentially functioned as child directed, inquiry based learning. It was a teaching philosophy that I thoroughly enjoyed as it opened up the concept of education in ways I had not previously been able to comprehend. No two years were ever the same. Nothing was rote. Every experience was unique to each individual class of children, making every experience a journey as well as shared between the children and the teachers. In cinematic terms, it was like watching every movie in my life on a television and then I went into a movie theater. In my mind, there was no going back to solely experiencing education in the traditional American ways.

That said and despite my love for this teaching philosophy, I understood completely that this method was exactly what it said it was: a philosophy, i.e. something designed to be examined, discussed and interpreted.

In the latter section of those 11 years, I found myself becoming increasingly troubled at how this philosophy was asked to be utilized by the school’s administration. Teachers were being demanded to have some sort of child-directed project occurring within their classrooms frequently ad seemingly for the purpose of said project to be properly documented and detailed for public presentation in the school hallways. These presentations were then used as selling points for prospective families searching for a high quality, forward thinking preschool experience. Some teachers, like myself, felt pressured and uncomfortable with having to essentially to force children to produce a product when the goal of the philosophy was to celebrate the process.

By the end of my tenure, the entire proceedings just felt wrong to me. It felt dishonest. In fact, to me, it felt worse than dishonest. It felt like a commercial of the most disingenuous kind because what is the point of having this philosophy at your disposal if you are not allowed the opportunity for it to be organic, meaningful and real?

In December 2007, less than one year before I eventually departed this school, I took in a screening of “My Kid Could Paint That,” an excellent documentary by filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, which illustrated those feelings I was having so perfectly, while also being a stimulating and challenging mystery.

The film revolves around 4-year-old Marla Olmstead, who lives in upstate New York with her parents, Mark and Laura, and younger brother Zane. Mark is an amateur painter with failed ambitions of being a working artist. Noticing his daughter’s interest with his art materials and tools, he gives her a canvas and paints to work with and discovers that Marla is a natural talent. Things progress innocently enough as a family friend who owns a coffeehouse offers to hang one of Marla’s paintings inside the shop. The painting catches the inquiring eye of a customer, who unexpectedly offers to buy the painting for a large sum of money. Meanwhile, another family friend, who happens to own an art gallery, offers to promote and debut a collection of Marla’s artwork. The story of Marla and her natural talent catches the attention of a local news reporter whose subsequent article is then picked up by the New York Times which then alerts a much wider audience to Marla’s paintings.

Marla’s celebrity status begins to rise astronomically with greater art shows, global media attention and customers worldwide, enraptured with the work of a small child, willing to pay upwards of $300,000 per painting.

And then, Charlie Rose and the crew of "60 Minutes II" comes calling.

Arriving with the intent to create a profile on Marla Olmstead and her work, it is through their their patented investigative journalism that a questionable hole is poked through the balloon of Marla’s fame and fortune. Were her paintings in fact doctored by her ambitious Father, thus nullifying the purity of the work? Is Marla Olmstead a fraud? Was she utilized as a puppet by the adults in her life? And even deeper, can the paintings even be considered art if she didn’t create them herself, by her own little hands and supposedly innate talent and skill?

"My Kid Could Paint That" is a completely absorbing documentary that not only debates the nature of modern art and our societal desire for something of untainted value, it also is a prime example of our "build-it-up-tear-it-down" culture with a 4-year-old child at the center of the vortex. While much about the validity of the child's art has come into question (and it is covered heavily within this film) for me, the film was less about the validity of the artist but about the validity of the adult's intentions that surround her.

Bar-Lev creates his own investigative canvas, which sometimes includes himself, to explore portraits of two men, Marla’s Father and the gallery owner/family friend, who are most likely living their respective dreams of fame and fortune through this unsuspecting child. Additionally, for the gallery owner, Marla’s art and fame offers him the chance to gain access into the larger world of modern art, a world in which he was previously denied access through his own artworks. A stunning sequence late in the film works almost as a moment of confession as the gallery owner not only exhibits his contempt for the exclusionary modern art world but explains that through Marla, he has found his linchpin to gain entry for himself while also flicking his middle finger in its face.

But for me, the most compelling persona in the film happens to be Marla’s Mother, Laura Olmstead. Throughout he film, Laura possesses the sole voice of reason, skepticism and caution concerning the level of attention Marla is receiving, the enormous amounts of money being lavished upon the family, and the potential adverse effects this experience would have upon Marla and even, the younger child Zane, who appears to be all but ignored within the context of this film. Yet, do Laura’s actions belie her concerns?

Yes, from the moment Marla’s first painting was hung in the coffeeshop through the “60 Minutes II” interview, I can concede that these events moved at the velocity of a freight train. Protective concerns or not, situations and opportunities seemed to be too advantageous and arose too quickly to be debated that much, let alone seriously considered deeply enough. But, look at Laura’s decision making process after the “60 Minutes II” interview, when it seemed that the whirlwind media adventures had, at last, ceased…something she had secretly been hoping for in the first place. While I will not spoil as I really, really want for you to see this film for yourselves, Laura Olmstead drew me in the deepest and the film’s final moments even led me to even larger issues for Marla.

I could no help but to wonder as I watched is how they will explain this time to this child as she ages. What happens to you when, ion some ways, you have peaked at the age of 4? What happens when she is 12? 15? 20? Perhaps she will turn out just fine but early fame has derailed more than its share of individuals, especially younger individuals and as Laura tearfully wonders what she has done to her family by allowing this unique adventure to occur, I wondered the exact same thing.

"My Kid Could Paint That," with its easily accessible 80 minute running time, is as involving and as complex as a tightly wound thriller. This film is highly recommended and it is well worth seeking out.

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