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Documentary Quickshots #2

My Kid Could Paint That (2007; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)

What is the Truth? Is there such a thing? What does it mean to us if there is, and what does it mean to us if there isn’t? And can storytelling, be it painting or documentary film, brings us closer to it, or simply make it more distant, more obscure?

Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That asks all of these questions, openly or obliquely, and doesn’t really answer any of them. It also asks, in much the same manner though not nearly as pointedly as Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, if contemporary art isn’t inherently a scam to separate pretentiously naive rich people from the money they don’t really deserve to have in the first place. The subject through which these big, unresolved interrogatories are filtered is Marla Olmstead, a 4-year-old girl from Binghampton, New York who became a global celebrity in the early 2000s when her abstract paintings began selling for thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Almost as soon as her fame exploded via an eager American media, skepticism reared its head, the focal point of which was a 60 Minutes II report that documented and speculated about whether Marla made the paintings entirely herself, or if she had secret polishing help from her publicity-hungry father Mark, whose interest in painting apparently sparked her own.

Bar-Lev had unprecedented access to the Olmsteads during Marla’s notoreity, which Marla’s parents seem to have given him primarily because they believed that his film would be favourable to their daughter’s practically impossible story. There’s certainly never a hint that the Olmstead household is anything but a happy one, whether or not it’s ground zero for a serious art fraud operation. Bar-Lev’s doubts become open by the film’s conclusion, which show a painful admission of his skepticism of Marla’s sole artistship to her parents, as well as Marla specifically asking for her father’s help in painting her latest work. Treated as a smoking gun of Mark’s guilt in stage-managing his small daughter’s career, it is far from definitive, though the father’s desperately insistent attempt to minimize its meaning on a phone call afterwards gives immediate pause.

But Bar-Lev more subtly and effectively mines My Kid Could Paint That with notes of creeping suspicion prior to that point. There’s the 60 Minutes II exposé, yes, but also Marla’s inability to explain her artistic choices when asked (I mean, she is 4 years old, but a Mozart-esque child prodigy would be able to express some idea, no?), the frustrating lack of definitive filmed proof of her painting a work start to finish (at least that wasn’t produced as marketing material by her family), and her art dealer’s brazen meta-admission of his opinion that modern art is an obtuse scam that he, as a semi-successful photorealist painter and outsider, was glad to exploit to the advantage of his finances and reputation. The film leads you skillfully to its agnostic conclusions before it lays them out openly (and, honestly, a bit clumsily).

One idea My Kid Could Paint That circles around but doesn’t key in on is how the story of Marla the 4-year-old painting prodigy preconditions reactions to her art, as well as sets its value. Exit Through the Gift Shop posited that the art world was so wrapped up in narrative and image, so disconnected from basic considerations of aesthetic quality or creative process, so awash in the irresponsibly-spent money of wealthy collectors with little clue about what makes art art, that a satirical ironist could lay bare its acquisitive hypocrisy by not only faking great art but indeed by faking the artist himself. My Kid Could Paint That posits something more profound and challenging, namely that it is not possible to tell real from fake in art, or even to begin to quantify or fathom what such a distinction might mean. Are the paintings of Marla Olmstead (now 16 years old!) great or interesting or valuable simply because they are painted by a preschooler, or despite of that (disputed) fact? How can we begin to answer either question, let alone sort one answer from the other?

Harmontown (2014; Directed by Neil Berkeley)

Far removed from the visual arts in practice, process, reception, and prestige, television comedy writing nonetheless has accrued a claim to direct access to Truth of serious, if not equivalent, dimensions. Dan Harmon, head writer and showrunner of the cult NBC sitcom Community and later co-creator of Adult Swim cult cartoon Rick and Morty, has received particular praise for not only his shows’ sharp, conceptually complex humour but also their beating heart, their use of laughter to forge a tentative but unifying sense of belonging among misfits. harmontown

Still, the praise given to a writer of a TV show with a cult following (and the middling ratings and perennial threats of cancellation that go with that double-edge term of endearment) may not be entirely satisfying to the ravenous ego of a comedy genius. So it seems to be with Harmon, who was fired from Community after its third season due to conflicts, both creative and personal, with executives, fellow creative staff, and most infamously with one of the show’s stars, Chevy Chase. Although Harmon returned to shepherd the show through the end of its run of six seasons (and, as one of the show’s cherished catchphrases predicted, apparently a movie as well), the firing (although not his first; he was also canned by Sarah Silverman from his key position with her eponymous show, despite her admiration of his work) seems to have sparked an existential crisis for Harmon.

Harmontown depicts how he chose to work through those issues: first, with a weekly cult comedy podcast, and second, by taking that podcast on tour across the U.S. in the dead of winter. Harmontown doesn’t sugar-coat its subject or depict him as any sort of brilliant or exceptional artist: Harmon procrastinates dangerously in delivering (unmade) pilot scripts to the CBS and Fox networks, drinks too much and is viciously critical of his live performances, and listens as his girlfriend discusses his rude behaviour. He’s even consistently outshone onstage by the deadpan unpredictability of Spencer Crittenden, an anti-social fan who was worked into Harmontown as Dungeon Master to the Dungeons & Dragons games that end each episode/performance.

But the film is often hilarious and even moving when showing moments from his shows and meetings with fans afterwards. Like the NBC sitcom that never had enough viewers and seemed to kind of like it that way, the Harmontown podcast and tour offers a feeling of community to people who don’t fit into the monolithic mainstream culture. In an American popular culture more niche-driven than ever before, Harmon has built for himself an intensely loyal niche audience, and Harmontown is a document of how he reaches out and touches that audience as well as how it recharges his creative batteries. This symbiosis – embodied by Spencer, the shy, solitary fan brought into Harmon’s modest spotlight – is good for both parties, and aims for some modest form of the Truth.

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Categories: Art, Film, Hilarity, Reviews
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