Friday, October 26, 2007

London Film Fest Day 10 - MY KID COULD PAINT THAT

A couple of years ago in New York state, a four-year old girl called Marla Olmstead was painting abstract art that was being displayed in a private gallery and selling for thousands of dollars. The story was picked up by a local newspaper, then the New York Times and finally by chat shows around the country. It was the perfect story. Here we had a very photogenic family and a cute kid painting in her diapers. The pictures used lots of bold colours and were easy on the eye. Best of all, world-weary adults could read stories of child-hood innocence onto them. It intrigued a public that had always been fascinated by child prodigies. And it fascinated a public that had always been suspicious that all of modern art was basically nonsense. Marla became so famous that 60 Minutes decided to do a show about her art. They even filmed her painting. But when the show aired they insinuated that Marla’s paintings were, at the very least, being “directed” by her father, and at worst, being painted by him. Overnight, the family were perceived to be frauds, the bottom dropped out of the market and the hate-mail started pouring in.

As chance would have it, during this entire process was captured by a documentary film-maker called Amir Bar-Lev who had set out to make a film about the nature of modern art. What he actually got on film was a documentary about the nature of the media circus and the dangerous relationship between the people who sell a product and the product they are selling. One of the most intelligent people he interviews is a young mother and local journalist called Elizabeth Cohen. She is the first to pick up on the story and sees the capacity in it for the media circus, if unleashed, to be turned into a media backlash. After all, once everyone has the story of a cute kid painting they need to create a new story of fraud to feed the monster.

This brings us to the second issue of the relationship between the “handlers” and the “product”. Marla’s mother comes across as a really lovely, caring woman who never wanted her daughter to be famous and couldn’t care less about the money. But she is over-ruled time and again by Marla’s father and the art dealer who are evidently loving all the press attention, limos and art shows and, of course, the paychecks. There’s a sinister piece of footage in which the art dealer is trying to exonerate himself and distance himself from the 60 Minutes debacle. Significantly, he reveals that he never really understood how the abstract artists made so much money, but he did understand PR. And he found Marla he knew that he had a big “story” and would be able to sock it to the modern art establishment that had overlooked him as a painter.

The documentary is about a family trying to wrest a story back from the network media. I got the impression that the art gallery owner and father were trying to do so to protect their own professional integrity and capacity to earn. For the mother, it was about rescuing her family’s good reputation. The audience can judge whether or not they believe the family. (For my part, I think that certain paintings do look more “polished” than those painted under lab conditions. And in candid moments, Marla asks her father to "finish it". But then again, if the dad was committing fraud, why would he allow 60 Minutes to put cameras in the house in the first place?!)

MY KID COULD PAINT THAT played Sundance, Toronto and London 2007 and was released in the US and Australia earlier in October. It opens in the UK on December 14th 2007.

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