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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, and My 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 movements.

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.