Length: 82 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Languages: English 5.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Thai
If an abstract painting is beautiful, or inspiring, or thought-provoking, or strikingly original, does it really matter who painted it? Should it not stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of whether it was created by Jackson Pollock or a complete unknown – or by a four-year-old girl?
My Kid Could Paint That is an intriguing documentary about the Olmstead family of Binghamton, New York. Mark Olmstead, a manager at the local Frito-Lay plant, began to dabble in painting as a hobby. One day he let his young daughter, Marla, play with a brush and before long he was allowing her to paint on canvas. By the age of three she was creating some fairly complex abstract pieces which were impressive enough that a family friend asked if they could displayed in a Binghamton coffee shop. To the friend’s astonishment, customers began to ask if the paintings were for sale, and one sold for $250. Later Marla’s paintings came to the attention of Anthony Brunelli, the owner of a Binghamton art gallery. He was so impressed with them that he offered to put on an exhibit of Marla’s work. A Binghamton newspaper then ran a story on Marla, which in turn led to an article in the New York Times. Before long, Marla Olmstead was a celebrity at the age of four.
The New York Times article, which was published on September 28, 2004, was seen by a young New York filmmaker named Amir Bar-Lev. He drove to Binghamton and persuaded Mark Olmstead and his wife, Laura, to let him film a documentary about Marla and her work. As this was happening, Marla was fast becoming the sensation of the modern art world. Her paintings were now selling for thousands of dollars and were being exhibited in galleries in New York City, with another show planned to open in California. Then 60 Minutes came along.
Marla’s paintings were shown by CBS to a psychologist named Eileen Winner, who specializes in gifted children. Initially, she was impressed. “It’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful. You could slip it into the Museum of Modern Art,” said Winner. “I think you could fool people. They’re good. They’re good.” The problem was that no one, other than her parents, had actually witnessed Marla complete a painting from start to finish. CBS persuaded the Olmsteads to allow a hidden camera to be installed in the ceiling of the room where Marla paints. A month later, after Marla had completed a new painting, Ms. Winner was shown the videotape. This time, she was skeptical. Not only was the painting unimpressive, Marla did not exhibit much enthusiasm for her work. Perhaps even more telling was the fact that her father could be heard off-camera, coaxing Marla along. When the segment aired on 60 Minutes II on February 23, 2005, viewers were left with the impression that Marla’s paintings were actually done by someone else, or at least they were completed by someone else. The likely suspect was her father, Mark.
Director Bar-Lev, who started the project as a profile of a child prodigy, was thrown for a loop by the 60 Minutes piece. He originally had no doubt that the paintings were done by Marla, and he had established a strong rapport with the Olmsteads. He now had his doubts and wanted to get complete footage of Marla doing a painting, but she was reluctant to work in front of a camera. The Olmsteads in turn felt that they had been burned by 60 Minutes and began to have concerns about how Bar-Lev would ultimately portray them.
My Kid Could Paint That does not answer the questions about the authenticity of the paintings. Although the press release from Sony says that this film documents the “rise and fall” of Marla Olmstead, it is more accurate to say that it shows the “rise and fall and resurrection” of Marla, because her paintings are still being sold to art collectors.
Marla Olmstead is a charming and loveable young girl, but this documentary is only tangentially about her. As a journalist points out during the film, it is really about the adults. On the one side are the Olmsteads. Marla’s mother, Laura, is from the beginning ambivalent about allowing her daughter to become a celebrity. Mark Olmstead, however, seems to relish nearly every minute of it (that is, until his integrity is questioned). On the other side are the art dealers who stand to make a lot of money selling the paintings and the art collectors who buy them. One very interesting scene shows an older couple debating about whether to pay $20,000 to buy a Marla painting called “Ocean.” They end up choosing it even though they seem to prefer some of Marla’s other works. Were they scammed? We do not know, but later we learn that by the fall of 2007 “Ocean” was selling for $35,000. Would anybody pay $35,000 for it if it had been painted by someone other than a child?
Is Mark Olmstead really the doting father of an artistic prodigy, or a con artist? It is tempting to believe the latter, but even that does not seem to make sense. There is no evidence that he ever tried to sell himself as an artist. One would tend to be more suspicious if Mark had tried and failed to succeed as an artist in his own right, and then came up with the gimmick of pawning off his work as that of his gifted child. Remember, this is art which some experts believe could be hanging in the best modern art museums. If it is that good, why the need for a gimmick? And if such a gimmick was necessary, what does that tell us about the world of art?
Some might feel that it is abstract art itself which is a scam. It is easy to take that position, as we have all heard the stories of paintings done by monkeys, etc. However, I have had the good fortune to attend a Jackson Pollock exhibit, and although I am not really a fan of abstract art I find his work to be mesmerizing. The Olmsteads have a website where Marla’s current paintings can be seen. After you watch this film, you will want to go to the website and see her work for yourself. Could your kid paint that?
My Kind Could Paint That, although about a much different subject, reminds me of Capturing the Friedmans in that it leaves the viewer with more questions than answers -- questions which may never be answered to our full satisfaction.
For the most part this film looks very good on DVD. There are a few places where the image looks a little soft, but documentaries tend to be like that because the filmmaker does not always have control of the lighting and other conditions under which the movie must be shot. Generally the image is sharp and stable. The colors appear to be rendered faithfully, which is important because so much of the art shown in the film is about the use of color. I did not observe any digital artifacts or other anomalies. All in all, it is a very solid transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.0 audio is crisp and clear. As one would expect, there is nothing for your subwoofer to do. However, there is plenty of music on the soundtrack and it comes across with pleasing separation and dimensionality. The conversations are clear and understandable throughout, and the entire soundtrack is rendered without objectionable noise or distortion.
This DVD includes a few supplements which will add to your enjoyment of the feature. There is an audio commentary with film editor John Walter and Anthony Brunelli, the Binghamton gallery owner who was the first to exhibit Marla’s work. Coincidentally, Brunelli and Mark Olmstead were school classmates since childhood, but they had different interests and actually were more acquaintances than friends.
The DVD also has a featurette entitled “Back to Binghamton” which was filmed after the documentary was completed. It includes footage from the Sundance Film Festival and includes reactions to the documentary from some of the Binghamton residents who appear in it. A number of deleted scenes are shown in the featurette. The featurette does not include any new footage of the Olmsteads, who were given a private screening but apparently declined to appear in the featurette. At Sundance, where the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category, a brief statement from Laura Olmstead was read in which she objected to some of the director’s editing choices.
Finally, there is a discussion by Michael Kimmelman, art critic for The New York Times. It is a useful primer for anyone who is confused about what constitutes “art.” And who among us is not confused by that?
This single-disc DVD comes in a standard keepcase with a colorful photo of Marla Olmsted and one of her paintings on the cover.
The Final Analysis
This is an excellent documentary which has received rave reviews from most critics. Even viewers who have no real interest in modern art should find it a fascinating way to spend eighty minutes. Marla Olmstead is either a budding genius or a pawn in one of the more original and successful scams of our time.
Equipment used for this review:
Toshiba HD-XA2 DVD Player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: March 4, 2008