Above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present. It cannot regret the past; it is dangerous to prophesy the future. It can, and does, draw on the past in its use of existing heritages but it only does so to give point to a modern argument. In no sense is documentary a historical reconstruction and attempts to make it so are destined to failure. Rather it is contemporary fact and event expressed in relation to human associations.
–Paul Rotha (1935)
It’s a testament to the power of the new documentary by Amir Bar-Lev, “My Kid Could Paint That,” that people (at least the ones that I’ve talked to) tend to see what that want to see in the film. The documentary, about the recent fifteen minutes of fame of a four-year-old abstract painter, is a strange kind of mirror, reflecting back at each of its viewers an individual reality of the viewer’s choosing. That is, some see it as an indictment of the fickle art world, which has the power to create fads and just as quickly to relegate them to the junk pile. Some see it as an exploration of the enduring power of creativity—particularly of the most pure and innocent (and cherubic) kind—even in the face of the cynical economics of creativity in this country. Still others see it as an American fable about average people trying to get ahead in a field of endeavor they scarcely understand, a sort of Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches genre turned on its head…
To me, this film, as well as two other recent documentaries—Esther Robinson’s “A Walk Into the Sea” and Matt Ogen’s “Confessions of a Superhero”—reveal all of these contradictory realities, and, in the process, explore the complicated and troubled relationship that Americans have with creativity, fame and fortune, and the ever-present will to stand out above the ordinary masses. Each film reveals something about the the absolute lengths that real people will go to just to get their name in the record books, their work up on screen or gallery wall, or their pictures splashed on a page of the 24-hour news cycle.
“My Kid Could Paint That” tells the story of the Olmstead family from Binghamton, New York. Mark and Laura are the middle-American parents—she a dental assistant, he a manager at a Frito Lay Plant—of two children, Zane and Marla. At age 2, in 2002, perhaps imitating her father, a hobbyist painter, Marla Olmstead began to paint. At age 3, a family friend suggested that they should let him hang Marla’s paintings in his coffee shop. In 2004, a local photorealist painter and gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, mounted a show of Marla’s work, prompting local journalist Elizabeth Cohen to write an article on the painting prodigy that eventually turned Marla—after the New York Times put a “match under a fuse” by picking up the story—into a national, even international, sensation.
To his credit, Bar-Lev keeps his camera level while exploring the competing forces and desires that end up acting on the family after being hit by the storm. Even as the balloon of hype and hoopla inevitably bursts, after a damning 60 Minute profile of the family suggests that an overbearing Mark has been prompting Marla’s creative output, Bar-Lev does not appear interesting in digging into the riddles that are plentiful in Marla’s story. Most of his film flat-footedly follows the agony of the family, and especially of the mother, as they deal with the charges of dishonesty and exploitation and wonder if they’re giving Marla a “normal” upbringing. “I want to take a polygraph,” Laura Olmstead says at one point in the film, “I don’t want to let anyone come in and dissect us again… What have I done to my children?”
Tellingly, throughout the film, Bar-Lev refuses glorify Marla, unlike the initial media stories, as a genius prodigy and natural creative force—preferring to show her most often in her natural state as a goofy and preoccupied four-year-old, pushing paint around like mud with her hands or chasing after butterflies in the yard. Bar-Lev seems to see his role as an unbiased and unjudging observer of one particularly noteworthy example of the country’s troubled love-affair with fame and its misunderstanding of the nature of creative output.
The most interesting portrayal in “My Kid Could Paint That” is of the father, Mark Olmstead. And while Bar-Lev neither reveals Mark Olmstead as a gray eminence nor completely swallows the family’s explanations of Marla’s pure creative process (he voices his doubts to the family on film), there is enough questioning that we’re not really sure what to believe in the end. After all, the camera records the mother’s saying early on, “Mark always wanted to be in the spotlight.” Like many people, Olmstead is a former athlete who’s always been artistically adept and who seems disappointed by his lot in life. “I would have been better off if I had become an NFL quarterback. That’s what I wanted to do… But I’m proud as hell of my daughter, as far as her painting ability goes.”
Observing the toll that fame and fortune, or the desire to touch the candlelight flame of each, takes on people is of utmost interest to Bar-Lev, and it also appears to drive the makers of two other recent documentary films.
I’ve already written a bit about the first, “A Walk into the Sea,” and I plan to write more once the DVD is available (apparently in early July), so I won’t dwell on it hear. The second, “Confessions of a Superhero,” is beautifully filmed, but ultimately much more lightweight, than either of the other films. “When we were kids,” says a superhero character to introduce the film, “we all dreamt about what it would be like to be a superhero, to have superpowers like x-ray vision or superhuman strength… But we all grow up. And sometimes we turn out to be not that super. And maybe we’re just plain ordinary. [This film] is a look at what people will do to be famous. And what they’ll settle for when they’re not.”
“Superhero” traces the life trajectories of four people who spend their days dressed up in superhero costumes to take pictures, for “tips,” with tourists on Hollywood Boulevard. Interestingly, all of them want to be actors and have minor (very minor) screen credits. Also interestingly, they all seem to be standing just a bit on this side of the sanity smokestack. One in particular, Christopher Lloyd Dennis, who looks somewhat like Christopher Reeves and, of course, plays Superman, is described by the others as fairly nuts. “Yes, obsessed,” says a man who dresses at Batman, “he is very obsessed. That would be the one world for Superman.” He claims at one point that his apartment holds at least a “million dollars” worth of Superman memorabilia, and he claims (dubiously) several times on film that he is the son of the actress Sandy Dennis (who told him on her “death bed” that he should get into the “business”—thus, kicking of his entertainment “career.” “He’s suffocating in the world of Superman,” says a friend from the Boulevard who dresses as Wonder Woman.
But in fact, they all seem, in their own way, rather driven to distraction by the effort to keep stoking the flames of their dreams to make it in Hollywood. “I feel so much like a loser,” says a fourth character, who dresses up as the Hulk, “because I didn’t come out here to get in a costume and stand on Hollywood Boulevard for chump change. I’m out here seriously to make a name for myself.”
In the end, “Confessions of a Superhero” peters out simply because the characters develop no “arc” during the story. All four simply end the film as they started, as people who are burdened by a hopeless dream. Some get married, some divorced; one gets counseling, one lands a role in a cheesy kung fu spoof; one is arrested, another ends up on Jimmy Kimmel. But that’s it. Their dreams live on, pathetically never to be realized.