The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned
by Charles Carreon
November 22, 2013
Ode to Pollock, by Marla Olmstead
What is innocence? What is it about innocence that jaded
people have got to destroy it? Why the vicious attacks on
even the idea that anyone is innocent?
Is the media really so corrupt that the very idea of people
being innocent is an offensive, obnoxious reminder that not
everyone is eager to sell their soul at the altar of money?
Why do documentary films about decent people turn into
search and destroy missions?
What I’m all exercised about is this movie, My
Kid Could Paint That, about
Marla Olmstead, the painter whose works you can see at MarlaOlmstead.com.
If you don’t know anything about this story, then play a
little game with yourself, and go look at her work before
you go any further. That way you can come to this topic
with your own view of her work in the foreground of your
thinking. Maybe that will help you preserve your innocence.
Probably Andy Warhol didn’t introduce the art world to
cynicism, but he made it into the most saleable pose for an
artist to assume against the noir backdrop of post-modern
urban gloom. Warhol’s prodigy Lou Reed just died, so that
tells you how long we lived with his sour brand of realism.
Long enough to make it establishment creed for the boomer
generation. In fact, the entire boomer experience is about
disillusionment and our pain at having lost, in quick
succession, Camelot, Woodstock, and Ecotopia.
Aside from those of us who fried a few too many brain cells
and started down that bright tunnel of light even before we
died, those of us who grew to maturity during the last
quarter of the past millennium do not place a lot of stock
in the viability of innocence as a survival strategy. We
are inclined to figure that, if you don’t sell out, you
don’t get anything, and anybody trying to tell you different
is obviously sold out. But that attitude is merely a
survival strategy, and it doesn’t make people like Marla
Olmstead and her parents disappear. Innocence does exist,
Kid Could Paint That tries
to make that innocence disappear. In the end, the only
thing that disappears is filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev’s
credibility as a documentarian.
Of course, Bar-Lev is like the jackal cleaning up after the
lion, because he borrows most of the “expose” portion of his
film from a 60 Minutes hit piece where Charlie Rose exudes
cynicism about the authenticity of Marla’s creations,
distorting his visage into a gallery of masks illustrating
the various genres of disbelief, while he elicits a
groundless opinion from a child psychologist that Marla
couldn’t have painted the works without adult assistance.
I think a documentary about a media story should actually
look at the quality of the media that constitutes the
story. You know, like, is Charlie Rose fulla shit? But
Bar-Lev doesn’t go there, or anywhere near there. It is
frankly shocking that Bar-Lev doesn’t eviscerate the core
fallacy of Rose’s presentation – that a child psychologist
can tell, from looking at paintings, whether they were done
by a child or not! For heavens’ sake, the experts can’t
even determine whether a work bought in a California thrift
shop was done by Jackson Pollock! Maybe since Pollock was
an alcoholic, we could talk to an alcohol rehab therapist
about whether Pollock did the artwork! You can imagine the
60 Minutes episode:
Charlie Rose: So, you’re an alcohol counselor.
Counselor: Yessir, I am.
Rose: You’ve seen a lot of drunks.
Counselor: Oh yeah, a lot of ‘em.
Rose: Well we’ve shown you some paintings by a famous
drunk. Do you think this other painting here was painted by
the same drunk?
Counselor: Well, I’m not sure. Seems like he mighta been a
little drunker when he did this one.
Yeah, I’d like to see that show. Aww, crimony get real!
Beyond just failing to critique Rose’s drive-by journalism,
it is bizarre that Bar-Lev, a fellow who has made a lot of
films, would claim that the tawdry 60 Minutes
slander-by-unqualified-expert routine actually shook his
faith in the genuineness of Marla’s artistic ability. This
turn of events is cheesily presented with one of those
stupid, low-production value scenes where the director is
driving down the road in his vehicle, with the camera
photographing the interior of the car, reading some script
he’s taped to his steering wheel about how he’s having all
these misgivings about some abstract “people” who are going
to be really disappointed when he calls them “liars.” I
actually was hoping he was talking about the child
psychologist Ellen Winner, and her flatulent opinion, but
the Judas tone in his voice told me that was not to be.
Bar-Lev pulls this crisis of conscience crap after he has
sucked us into the feel-good explosion of positivity that
greeted Marla’s first show and the subsequent sales that
ballooned into that most dangerous of all things – six
figures preceded by a dollar sign. The number that is
thrown about for the rest of the movie is $300,000. This
type of money is blood in the water for the media sharks.
If you are a cynical media person, a million ideas do not
pop into your head when you hear about that kind of money
being earned by a three-year-old. Only one idea pops into
your head: “Is this kid for real?”
Oh, so I get it. It’s just another case of William Randolph
Hearst telling the photographer to just get the pictures,
and he’ll make the news. Bar-Lev is in fact, nothing more
than a cameraman and an editor in this story. He’s not
digging for the truth at any time. He’s not examining
dubious assertions or revealing mistaken assumptions or
finding unknown facts. He’s recycling news clips as if
their every statement was fact, when in truth, some are
clearly ridiculous, like the one at the beginning that says
Marla’s two-year old brother commented that forty-thousand
bucks would “buy a lot of candy.” It’s obvious from the
movie that this was rank invention on the part of some TV
reporter, because Marla’s little brother doesn’t do much
with his mouth except smile and shout, and occasionally say,
“I can paint, too,” in an effort to get a little attention.
What Bar-Lev has done skillfully is to worm his way into the
confidence of the Olmsteads, who are two of the most
extraordinary parents I have ever seen. And it is painful
to see how he exploits the vulnerability of the Olmsteads,
in the wake of the 60 Minutes attack, pushing Marla’s dad to
create a situation where Marla will create a painting on
film, for Bar-Lev’s camera. This, of course, does not work
out well enough to satisfy Bar-Lev. He tries to make it
seem like viewing Marla working on a canvas through this
probing, voyeuristic lens, in a cold and unfriendly light,
is realistic. He completely fails to see how ridiculously
unrealistic and selfish his demand is. Why should a
four-year-old child whose parents love and protect her worry
about pleasing a guy with a camera? People with cameras
come and go, and they all want to see her paint. In the
end, Bar-Lev’s attitude is petulant and petty. If Marla
won’t paint for him, he’ll just tell the world he doesn’t
think she can really paint at all.
The evidence for Bar-Lev’s skepticism is lacking, however,
and if his only argument is, “Well, she couldn’t do it in
front of my camera, so I just have to doubt,” then he is far
too obsessed with his camera, and should consider putting it
down for a while. Things can be known without direct
photographic evidence. Sometimes, things just only make
sense when viewed in one way, and that way is the truth.
Marla was three years old when her Dad let her play with
paint and brushes and paper. Her work was sophisticated
from the beginning. She begins by engineering random effects
that she blends into a full composition, making full use of
the canvas, weaving bright primary colors into complementary
backgrounds, all with a vital “one take” freshness. Videos
of her working show a mind fluidly absorbed in its work.
She rarely looks up as the minutes pass, engrossed in the
swirls and patterns that she creates with precise, sensitive
Ironically, all this is present and visible in Bar-Lev’s
film, but he purports not to see it. He insists on
releasing these clouds of skepticism that he claims he
cannot dispel. He’s like the man who went to a flower show
while suffering from severe flatulence. When asked how the
show had been, he said it was strange, that all the flowers
had smelled like shit. Bar-Lev seems to have the same
problem. He looks at innocent beauty, and smells a plot to
deceive the art world and harvest money by fraud. As Doug
Harvey wrote in the LA Weekly back when the movie came out:
“In the final analysis, the filmmaker’s crisis of faith is
unconvincing, except as one of a series of blatantly
manipulative decisions that, despite the lack of any kind of
empirical evidence, bolsters the most commercially viable
story that can be milked from the situation — the one where
Marla’s parents are supernaturally cunning con artists out
to exploit the gullibility of the deluded collectors of
essentially fraudulent modern art.”
Was Marla’s work really that dangerous to the art world? Of
course not, but there’s no point in taking any chances,
either. Is it a problem for us if, occasionally, innocence
produces works of art that inspire more greatly than the
products of expert labor by recognized artists? Yes, it is,
because it confuses categories. Children must be children,
those helpless little creatures whose minds present no
threat to us because, as adults, we know more than they do.
We do everything better. We’ve gained everything from our
maturity and lost nothing. Except our innocence.