March 21, 2008

Art & Commerce: My Kid Could Paint That and Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock


Reviewer: James van Maanen

My Kid Could Paint That
Rating (out of 5): ****

Who The #$&% Is Jackson Pollack
Rating (out of 5): ***

Two recent documentaries provide some fascinating glimpses into art, artists, the media, marketing and the documentary process itself, all the while slapping the viewer this way and that, as the stories told (they're both mysteries of a sort) grow stranger, sadder and funnier until they approach the ridiculous and the sublime. Often at the same time.

You've undoubtedly heard about the subjects of these films, for both were covered by the media --mostly, as is typical of our "news," in bits, pieces and sounds bites. The beauty of these documentaries is the depth of exploration they provide. You may come away feeling less certain about "Is it or isn't it?" (in the case of Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollack) or "Did she or didn't she?" (regarding My Kid Could Paint That), but you'll have entered a complicated world in which "truth" is not so easily accessed and may not exist at all. Best of all, even if you don't approach either film with any heavy-duty art credentials (or interest), both encompass so much more (class, wealth, parenting and responsibility, to start a very long list of themes) that they should easily grab and hold you.

Glossily put together by multi-hyphenate (actor/producer/writer/director) Harry Moses, Who the #$&% tells the story of Teri Horton, a good ol' gal from the southwest who finds herself the owner of a painting that begins to look like it might have been created by, yes, that titular painter. The fact that she initially doesn’t know a Pollack from a polyp deters her not a whit. Determined to learn the provenance of her painting, she presses onward, much to the dismay of the art establishment (has ex-Met director Thomas Hoving ever seemed more arrogant and pretentious?) and sometime even of her family and friends.

We learn about art authentication, forensics, and yes, Jackson Pollack, whose work I admit to appreciating a bit more after viewing this film. You'll have your own view about the painting's authenticity, depending, I expect, of whose camp--establishment or non--you're already a member. Whichever, it'll be hard not to enjoy the movie, since Ms. Horton is a hoot: funny, frisky, real--with her own brand of heavy-duty arrogance. And since the film is a kind of adventure/detective story, it's also non-stop fun.


my kid

As lively and fascinating as is Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock, My Kid Could Paint That proves an altogether deeper and more troubling experience--one that filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev (whose 2000 documentary Fighter is also a must-see) approaches from just about every possible angle. We meet the subject, 4-year-old Marla Olmstead, who appears to be able to create surprisingly adept, even mature art; media people, local and national, who help turn Marla into a money-making celebrity; Marla parents, who are complicit in all this, one perhaps more than the other by rather disturbingly fudging the line between cheerleader and creator; the art dealer/gallery owner who markets Marla; NY Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, who offers by far the most intelligent and rigorous of the movie's assessments (watch his interview in the DVD extras: it's one of the best talks about an intelligent approach to understanding modern art that I have ever heard) and perhaps most important, Mr. Bar-Lev himself, who make us complicit in his filmmaking process.

Because Bar-Lev brings us into such close proximity to his people, we see and feel for/against them rather strongly, sometimes confusedly, and there were times as I watched this remarkable documentary when I felt queasy in a manner I don't recall experiencing before. From the early sections, when the local and then the national media cry "Genius!" until later, when 60 Minutes claims "Fraud!", we are weighing evidence, wondering about it all, and beginning to suspect that we will never really know. And at the center of it is little Marla; beyond her, "art," and beyond that, celebrity and commerce, which forever feed each other--and us--a diet of nutrition-free junk.

In his interesting review of My Kid in The New York Times, A.O. Scott (for my money, one of the best of our current critics) finds dishonesty: "a bad faith that lies precisely in Mr. Bar-Lev's studied displays of doubt and unease." Acknowledging that he, as filmmaker, is guilty of exploiting Marla does not let him so easily off the hook, notes Scott. "He has made an excellent documentary, but it would have been better if he had not made it at all." This is indeed an excellent documentary, but I disagree that it should not have been made. I did not find Bar-Lev's displays of doubt and unease particularly studied. Because of his strong connection to the family, his sentiments seem about as genuine and honest as you could expect from a documentary filmmaker who is coming to realize that his subjects might be both more and less than he had imagined. He wants to be kind and fair, but he also wants the truth. Naïve this may be, but it also strikes me as quintessentially human.

Bar-Lev did not begin Marla's media circus, nor did he create the 60 Minutes debacle. What he has given us here is a much richer view of the entire experience and the people involved than has heretofore been seen. And if he's made us accomplices in all this, well, come on people: Act like adults. Better we watch this movie, think about it, and deal with its many, many ramifications.

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Posted by cphillips at March 21, 2008 12:03 PM
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