(2007) dir. Amir Bar-Lev
The story that spawned this documentary, that of a 4 year old Binghampton, NY girl whose abstract paintings were being shown and sold in galleries in New York, had come to my attention back when the story first gained mainstream media attention in an article in The New York Times four years ago. So, when I’d seen that a documentary feature had been made on the subject, I wasn’t surprised, but I was interested.
There are some obvious pre-thoughts one might bring to such a story: exploitation by the parents, the question of non-representational art inspired by the film’s title, the whole media frenzy over things like such a phenom. What signifies a true “child prodigy”?
The film delves into all of that, but more, happily.
I am always a bit skeptical of documentaries that figure their directors in their narratives, not due to obvious lack of objectivity but rather egotism, the need to insert oneself into a narrative about something or someone else. And when the opening shot featured director Amir Bar-Lev chatting with Marla Olmstead, the four year old of note and her brother, I was a bit worried. But as the story goes on, as the film takes on a personalized view, one in which the director himself expresses his lack of certainty and the basic nature of “knowing” what the facts of a story are, it comes to have made sense. And I think overall, Bar-Lev did an admirable job with the subject matter.
Marla Olmstead’s story starts innocently enough. Her father gave her paper to paint on while he was painting simply to distract her rather than putting her in front of the television. She showed an aptitude for non-representational imagery and visual aesthetic higher than the average toddler and he moved her on to canvasses to see what she would do. When on a whim, a friend at a cafe offers to put up her art to see what people would say, the family finds themselves on the threshhold of a world of art and media and public scutiny that they had never anticipated.
A local artist (interestingly a photo-realist painter himself, who turns out to truly have issues with non-representational art) capitalizes on the pint-sized ingenue and after an article in the local paper gets usurped by The New York Times, all hell breaks loose. Marla’s art starts selling for thousands of dollars. She gets calls from Jay Leno and Oprah and 60 Minutes. The local artist who pimped her work locally gets her a show in New York City and the whole show sells out.
Marla’s mother clearly never pushed for her daughter to experience the limelight, focussing on her experience as any child, not seeking money nor fame. Her father, especially with the help of the local promoter, saw opportunity for money and fame, but perhaps with a naivitee that might absolve the father at least of greater disdain.
When the 60 Minutes piece runs, two days before her West Coast art opening, the shit hits the fan. Interviewing with a psychologist who specializes in “child prodigies”, anchorperson Charlie Rose raises great skepticism of Marla’s authorship, suggesting that Marla’s father either coached her or actually painted the paintings himself. Everyone is blindsided, including the film’s director, who had not questioned the work’s authenticity.
Here is where the issues become so much more complex. In interviewing Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, the most discerning and wide-ranging discussion of the issues around non-representational art are raised. The historical criticism that “my kid could paint that” and how such visual gibberish is an affront to the hard-fought skills and draughtmanship of the fine and representational painter are well-elucidated. That the impressario, Marla’s dealer, the photo realist, later comes to voice these specific critiques after the 60 Minutes scandal and that he had ulterior motives to sort of put a “fuck you” to the art establishment underscores the continued reality of such perspectives.
The family becomes devastated by the question of authorship. But the authorship is a big part of the golden eggs that little Marla is birthing. The paintings have aesthetic beauty, but none of this story would be a story if her father Mark Olmsted was the artist. It’s utterly that the hand of a 4 year old could create something so aesthetic and so beyond the typical artistry of children that makes the images fascinating and gives the story its story. But for the family, as well for the promoter, integrity becomes a much bigger factor.
The rise to celebrity, the stink of scandal, the sense of betrayal by those whose exploitation was initially sought…it’s a very compelling story. I would say so even more so for parents who have had small children and can relate even more to the choices and reprecussions therein.
And for the director, who also has the local author of the initial newspaper article on Marla as his other primary strong interviewee (a mother herself, and a sensative and sincere, intelligent counterpoint), there is a balance struck, one that singularly questions the perspective taken on representing this story. The objectivity of documentation, in primal counterpoint to the subjectivity of non-narrative representation, has to recognize the limitations of objectivity, especially when pointedly questioning the integrity of people upon whom his own success as a filmmaker relies.
There is a lot here in this film, a lot to consider. I certainly recommend it to anyone who has thought this far in my description that anything within it might be worth inspecting.