23 March 2008 | zetes
An average documentary that excels because of an interesting subject
Not a particularly well done documentary the director doesn't get good enough footage to assemble a "complete" documentary, and it feels a little sloppy in the end. But Bar-Lev, whose second feature documentary this is, was lucky enough to chance upon an controversy that engages the audience nicely. I've certainly been thinking about it a lot for the past couple of days. The film is about a four year-old artist, Marla Olmstead, who took the art world by storm in 2005 with her amazingly sophisticated and beautiful abstract paintings. Marla's output produced a good $200,000 between '05 and '06. Bar-Lev wanted to document this child prodigy, but in the middle of his time spent with the family, the infotainment show 20/20, just one of a host of television news shows that covered the story, broke the angle that Marla's father, an amateur painter himself, may have coached the girl. All Hell breaks loose, the parents become pariahs, and they look to Bar-Lev as a possible savior. Unfortunately for them, Bar-Lev, who all the time has been trying and failing to get film of Marla painting one of her "masterpieces", is swayed by 20/20. It's a lot of fun to look at the evidence provided, to try to read the body language of the parents and try to read between the lines with them. You also have the issue about whether Marla herself was being exploited, which can raise a lot of debate. The film also works as an exploration of modern and abstract art. I myself am a fan of it, and I think there have been plenty of truly beautiful works of non-representational art. But, yeah, there are definitely paintings, some on display at an art auction going for millions of dollars in this film, where even I think the title of the documentary puts it perfectly. Most people are far less accepting than I. The film shows just how much the genre sticks in the craw of the general American public, and, in a sequence where the parents share a host of nasty e-mails with Bar-Lev, many seem just as angry that any of these paintings sold in the first place as they do that the paintings may be a sham. Even the 20/20 segment angles itself as an attack on non-representational art. Also featured are clips of a John Stossel news documentary about abstract art that I remember seeing a while back that really got my goat and has literally been making me angry for years now. Like many documentaries, the film benefits greatly from its DVD extras, which include a 30+ minute followup (which actually caused me to lose some sympathy for the parents; I seemed to be one of the few people who watched this movie and sympathized with them), and a great 15+ minute defense of abstract art by New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman.