The Director of My Kid Could Paint That discusses the paintings of Marla, the world of modern art and the controversy that overtook the Olmstead family.
When documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev (The Fighter) first set out to film a documentary about four year-old prodigy painter, Marla Olmstead, he had a different film in mind. Marla’s early rise to fame had just begun, a toddler from Binghamton, New York whose modern art works displayed ability far beyond her years. But midway through Bar-Lev’s filming, 60 Minutes ran a story on the Olmstead family which hinted at the idea that Marla’s paintings might not be entirely her own.
At this point, Bar-Lev’s movie suddenly became something else entirely. JT Leroy, James Frey, Stephen Glass and now little Marla Olmstead? The report lead the Olmstead family into a series of filmed paintings in which the family tried to prove that Marla had painted her exceptional works all on her own.
Little has changed since the last day Bar-Lev filmed the Olmstead family two years ago. They are unhappy with the film and feel that portrays them in an unfair light, although Bar-Lev has been careful to leave the final conclusions up to the viewer.
I recently sat down with Bar-Lev on a sunny down outside the Four Seasons in Los Angeles to discuss My Kid Could Paint That. Bar-Lev approaches the discussion of the movie with a heavy heart. He was invited into the Olmstead home and was charmed by Marla and her brother Zack. However, like so many others, he was ultimately left doubting the authenticity of the work that set the art world aglow in 2004.
Jeff Otto, reelz.com: This movie morphed into something quite different from what you were originally intending. Tell me about how you first got involved and where you saw your story going before the controversy?
Amir Bar-Lev: I read a NY Times piece and I just was able to pick up the phone and get them on the line, which surprised me. I was interested in it because of a couple of things, which were – 1) Any time you have a four year-old who’s an international celebrity it brings up a bunch of interesting questions about the way the media works, our relationships with children, fame, money… When you have a four year-old whom people are saying is a prodigy in abstract painting, it’s interesting because there don’t seem to be abstract standards by which you would assess that a four year-old is, clearly, in black and white terms, prodigious. 2) I was interested in exploring modern art through the lens of this phenomenon. Then I met her family and I realized this wouldn’t have to be a dry academic exploration of some of these things that interest me about the film because it was unfolding in very dramatic cinematic terms. They are a very likable family who are very ambivalent about all the attention. It was clear to me that I was on to something that would have a theatrical dramatic life even before this alleged “hoax” came up. It was like witnessing somebody winning the lottery. You often hear that when you win the lottery, it seems like it’s gonna be a good thing, but it’s a mixed bag. That was the film I set out to make.
JO: I thought it was interesting how there is always the analogy about modern art “my kid could paint that” which the title is a reference to. But then, as the validity of Marla’s work comes into question, everyone seems to be saying ‘That’s too good for a little kid to have painted that.’
ABL: There’s another way that I hope calls into question that line, ‘My kid could paint that.’ The more you learn about abstract art, the more you learn that the notion of skill has changed over time. Just because something is easy to do doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily less skillful. It’s not the same to paint a Pollock 40 years after Pollock painted them, even if it looks very similar. There’s a different set of values at work… Just because something looks easy to do doesn’t mean that your kid could do it.
What’s interesting, and it’s actually in the outtakes that I’m working on now for the DVD, Kimmelman points to Hemmingway. Hemmingway’s sentences are super-simple, and it’s their simplicity that’s the beauty of it. You wouldn’t just say ‘Oh, my kid could write like Hemmingway.’ It could be the same sentence. Values change over time.
JO: There are a few scenes in the movie that really seemed to turn the audience against the Olmsteads. The first is when the comparison shots are shown of the paintings Marla painted off-camera next to the filmed works and the second is when the gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, hard sells the woman to buy “Ocean” when she clearly doesn’t like it as much. Finally, you tell the Olmsteads that you still need to be convinced. Aside from that moment, did they ever try to go any further to convince you?
ABL: No, it wouldn’t have been fair for me to withhold footage.
JO: I didn’t know if there might have been scenes off screen that you weren’t able to film?
ABL: No, there’s nothing like that. I put in everything that I think would sway people one way or the other. The film doesn’t have a knock out punch in either direction… It doesn’t have that not because I withheld stuff, but because I didn’t get it. There are films that invite the audience to make up its own mind. Those are films I admire. But what I was trying to do was to take it one step further and not try to gloss over my own opinion. Sometimes it’s a little bit disingenuous to pretend that the director doesn’t have an opinion. I’m almost more comfortable when the director just comes right out and tells you his opinion and even persuasively tells you his opinion, then I am with one that pretends that there is no filmmaker. This is reality. You’re looking at reality.
JO: So what is your opinion at the end of the day?
ABL: My opinion is pretty much what you see me say sitting on that couch… I say, on the couch, it’s very hard for me to believe that the same girl did all those paintings.
As the film plays out, I generally believe Laura Olmstead (Marla’s mother), but it becomes increasingly hard to believe Mark Olmstead (Marla’s father). He seems to crack under the pressure, where as, when Laura cries, she’s either telling the truth or she’s a fantastic actress.
ABL: That’s what is disturbing about the film. There’s several different scenarios. In a way, the most comfortable scenario is that Marla is the one doing those paintings. When you begin to lose faith that that’s the case, as I did, you confront darker scenarios. They make you question your own capacity to read people to a certain degree.
JO: What is the family’s involvement in the film at this point?
ABL: They’ve seen the film and they did release a public statement. It was at the Sundance Film Festival. They are not happy with the film.
JO: From the end of the film until now, how long has that been?
Bar-Lev shows me a timeline, which indicates the last day of shooting was August 17, 2005.
JO: So what’s happened with Marla and the Olmstead family since?
ABL: The paintings are still selling and, in my mind, the most interesting development since then is that, we premiered the film at Sundance, we brought six of her paintings to hang on a gallery at Park City – we borrowed them from collector’s – and there were record-breaking offers on her work from people who had seen the film. $35 thousand, $40 thousand dollar offers.
JO: Do you think those buyers believe she painted the works alone or that the controversy just makes them more appealing?
ABL: It’s a good question and one I don’t have an answer for. I didn’t get to speak to any of those people. I tried really hard to find them, but people who collect like that don’t like to be in the limelight. I would have loved to talk to somebody about why they’d want to buy it.
JO: I would guess that if the film becomes a hit, the paintings would gain in value regardless of their validity.
ABL: I think if you have $25 thousand dollars to spend on a painting, you think about the world in a different way than I do.
JO: Another aspect I found interesting was the fact that these so-called art experts were saying these are brilliant works. So, at the end of the day, what does it matter whether a kid or an adult painted them?
ABL: Not exactly though. There’s the line in the film where Michael Kimmelman (Chief Art Critic for the New York Times) says, “The story of the making of a thing can be as important as the story that’s contained on the canvas itself.” I think that’s at work here. I think people were buying those Marla’s not only because they like what’s on the pictures… In the same way that I have a Swiss army knife that belonged to my grandfather. And it doesn’t matter if someone said, “Here, take this knife, it’s better.” You would say no. It just goes to show you that stories can be more valuable than things…
JO: Are you an art fan?
ABL: I’m less skeptical now than I was going in, mainly due to Michael Kimmelman and the few hours we spent when we interviewed him. He gave me months of things to think about. What I’ve come to understand is that just because you don’t have those objective standards with abstract art doesn’t mean that you can dismiss, that you can just throw your hands up in the air and say “This is all a big con…” It’s nice that there aren’t those objective standards. It means that you can engage with it on a personal level and decide whether or not you like it…
ABL: I hope that the film resonates because I think it touches on a bunch of issues that you find in the news all the time now. Anything from James Frey to JT Leroy all the way to Kids Nation… I was just reading in the New Yorker about this older woman who was a pianist that they were saying, basically, died without anybody knowing what a genius she was. And it turns out that it was also a fabrication. I think that we get so much of our information now through the media. I think that people are interested in exploring how these stories get constructed and how easy it is to manipulate things. I hope that anybody who’s wondered about reality TV – to say nothing of documentary and news and all the other ways that we come to understand the world through non-fiction entertainment – will be interested in the film.