Movie Review for My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

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Review #581 of 365
Movie Review of My Kid Could Paint That (2007) [PG-13] 82 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $13.75
Where Viewed: Neighborhood Flix, Denver, CO
When Seen: 12 December 2007
Time: 1:00 pm
DVD Release Date: 4 March 2008 (click date to purchase or pre-order)
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Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev (Kid Protocol)
Written by: Amir Bar-Lev

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Click to see photos from the Premiere of My Kid Could Paint That
There's always a danger in starting up the process of making a documentary film that the director will, like a 4H kid who names his lamb, get too close to be as objective as the 'rules' of the genre prescribe. Of course, unlike the fate of the lamb that surely, eventually, must face the slaughter, the rules of documentaries, like any area of filmmaking, are not set in absolute stone. Nonetheless, as Amir Bar-Lev learned the hard way, the complications of becoming too singularly connected with the subjects of his documentary, the Olmstead family and their 4-year old painter daughter Marla, as he notices an occasional clouding of his objective if not his objectivity. Curiously, however, this departure from conventions probably saves this film from chaotic disaster. Certainly, in the process of telling any story it is as much in the way and what is told as what is not told that makes the each one a matter of perspective. Ultimately, what happens to Amir Bar-Lev as he makes the film, including via questions he's asked and answers shyly by those he's interviewing, is as important to the film as the 'real' subjects of the film. At some point along the journey approximately when he begins to doubt for himself the authenticity of his subjects despite knowing them far better than any other single outsiders allowed to capture their true selves, warts and all, on film; he opens up a window into a fascinating exploration of human nature. Specifically, what is it about us that drives us to create heroes only then to turn right around and undermine them into oblivion?

In this case, it all begins with a whimsical request of a baby who asks her father to let her paint like him. Only what she produces vastly exceeds the abilities of her dabbling father, at least to the eye of a family fried who suggests they put Marla's painting up in his bar and see what people's reactions to it are. This fateful decision unleashes a maelstrom from Pandora's Box blindsiding the naïve Mark and Laura, Marla's mom and dad--both humble, working class people. At first, things seem pretty good. People love Marla's paintings. They are dropping thousands on them. Are they special because they are beautiful abstract paintings or because the artist was only 4 years old? There is a subtext here confronted head on from both sides that works incredibly well in the film, and it focuses on the notion of general cynicism directed by many critics and non-critics alike squarely at modern art. The film's title acknowledges this as in, "Is it art 'if my kid could paint that'?" Well, Marla's life is going along well with a New York Times article as the catalyst to her subsequent world-wide fame and splendid sales. Yet, then, just before she's to have her first LA gallery opening, a "60 Minutes" story about her and her work takes an unexpected turn for the worse and ends with a child psychologist leveling a career-shaking charge that Marla could not possibly be the sole artist behind her paintings.

"… a wonderfully compelling and candid exploration into the dynamics of fame forced upon a semi-willing family…"
She bases her accusations on "60 Minutes" footage taken from a family-authorized hidden camera during one of Marla's painting sessions. She argues the painting style in the footage lacks the polish of Marla's other paintings and she observes no behavior in Marla as she paints that's any different from the random paint-pushing of any other 4-year old. Unfortunately, "60 Minutes" takes the place of the film's villain and also lives up to the negative stereotype of journalists who warm you up for a story about you only to pull the rug out from under you back in the editing room. Nonetheless, questionable analyses by the child psychologist who never met Marla, never actually watched her paint, and never spoke to or interviewed her parents aside, the take most people got was that poor Marla was being used by her unscrupulous parents to defraud the art community. While it took months for Marla to become an international art sensation, it only took "60 Minutes" for her to fall off the map into near obscurity. The Olmstead's instantaneous bitterness calls everything into question. Their only hope of vindication comes in the form of Amir Bar-Lev documentary, and they don't know that even he is having his own doubts.

Underlying all of this, of course, is still that nagging question about modern or abstract art in the first place. On the one hand, why should it matter if Marla painted the paintings or not? Does that make the paintings less worthy as brilliant abstract paintings? Is it the art or the artist that really matters? If Shakespeare didn't write all of his plays as some scholars suggest, does that diminish them in some way? And, yet on the other hand, if Marla did paint them and her parents are being falsely accused, are the paintings suddenly brilliant again? If you like a piece, for whatever reason, is that the art in it? Abstract and modern art faces a problem the film highlights. Many people don't like it, don't think it is art, cannot differentiate it from craft, and therefore, love the idea that a 4-year old can do it. What else to prove it's not really art, right, if any random kid can do it? Part of the problem is that people 'in the know' about modern art always claim they see something in it. They find the symbolism, and scholars of any art are all about the symbolism. Yet, what symbolism could a 4-year old be using? Did she intend for the blue strokes in the middle of the mostly red painting to represent the struggle of humanity to overcome the growing anger of a downtrodden society? Probably not. And inasmuch as scholars of literary criticism and art criticism may in their brilliance expound upon the use of symbolism in any piece of writing or visual art, the artist may have had no such intention or meaning. Could it be that, really, the problem with modern or abstract art is not the art nor the artists but, rather, the critics who seek to find meaning or imply meaning that strictly lies in the eyes of the beholder? And, it is really they who do not wish to have the lid blown off their cover as a profession that is not far removed from that of soothsayers?

The net result of the documentary, which has an interesting and satisfying conclusion in spite of "60 Minutes", is a wonderfully compelling and candid exploration into the dynamics of fame forced upon a semi-willing family and its impact as they face the harsh reality of the world and the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol suggested everyone should get.

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Review-lite My Kid Could Paint That (2007) [max of 150 words]
Documentary filmmaker, Amir Bar-Lev exhaustively explores the rise and fall and re-birth of a four-year old painter whose sudden fame and subsequent misfortune stuns her naïve working class parents. Challenging the notions of what constitutes abstract or modern art, the film forces a near reconciliation between the world of those who do and do not know what art really is. The result is a fascinating film in which Mr. Bar-Lev must also confront his own role as a filmmaker to expose the truth in an objective fashion—something which one may not be able to do well if drawn in too closely to the subjects.

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