MY KID COULD PAINT THAT
My Kid Could Paint That details one of the most intriguing human-interest stories of recent years. At the age of four, Marla Olmstead, from Binghamton, New York, won international fame for abstract paintings which were hailed for their unusual sophistication and masterly technique. They were initially displayed at the coffee shop of a friend of her parents, dental worker Laura and Mark, a Frito-Lay factory worker. They drew the attention of local gallery owner Anthony Brunelli, who gave the tot a show, which unloosed the media floodgates. The New York Times came a-callin’ and Marla was soon featured on TV and in every magazine.
Then, just as quickly as the furor and profitable sales (up to $25,000 a canvas) began, disillusion and debunking set in, when the purity of Marla’s exact involvement in the work was called into question—i.e., did she really do them all by herself? A devastating “60 Minutes” segment ensued, which painstakingly set up a hidden camera to try to capture the child at work, completely alone and sans any adult coaching from a perhaps too-suggestive Dad. Art experts weighed in on the results and found Marla’s unsupervised efforts far less impressive and more truly childlike than her previous work. Child psychologist Ellen Winner observed that Marla seemed to lack the “rage to master” which other child prodigies evince and appeared to be just “pushing paint around.” Marla’s parents are shown watching this news segment with mounting trepidation, and are left ultimately shattered by it.
Documentarian Amir Bar-Lev has created a fascinating film which touches on a captivating range of subjects: the always alluring idea of the child prodigy, overweening family ambition, the frenzy of the media in its double desire to celebrate and destroy, and the eternal question of what it is, exactly, that constitutes great art. New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, interviewed here, is particularly perceptive in his comments regarding what many consider the great crapshoot that is success in the art world today. Telling parallels are drawn between Marla’s work and the similar, seemingly random spatterings of no less than Jackson Pollock himself. Bar-Lev has additional interviews with Elizabeth Cohen, the local newspaper writer who first covered the story, as well as Brunelli, who, it must be admitted, comes off in a way that might be described as huckster-ish.
The Olmsteads themselves initially appear the most millennial Norman Rockwell-like of family units. The parents are young and attractive, with Laura in particular a near-idealization of the level-headed soccer mom, wary of her husband’s and Brunelli’s dollar-sign eyes and ever-bigger plans, and deeply concerned with the effect all this might have on her child. Marla is adorable, a serious, self-directed, rather solitary child who does indeed seem to have something genuinely special about her. But there is one moment in the film which is both heartbreaking and telling, when her little brother, Zane, waves a drawing and pipes up, “I did this!”—to universal indifference.
An intriguing parallel theme which develops is Bar-Lev’s own increasing skepticism about it all, after tirelessly wooing the Olmsteads for their consent to do the film, and his initial enthusiasm over a project he saw as probably nothing more than the filmic preservation of a childhood phenomenon. The real denouement occurs when he finally confronts the parents and tries to uncover the exact truth of the matter and, for the first time, some undeniably unsettling cracks seem to appear in their scrupulously upheld façade of complete conviction.
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