How documentary director Amir Bar-Lev ignited excitement for and criticism of modern art with “‘My Kid Could Paint That’
I approach my interview with Amir Bar-Lev with a modicum of hostility not for the man, but for his message.
It’s hard not to get a little worked up after seeing Bar-Lev’s documentary about modern art, “My Kid Could Paint That” easily the most provocative film of 2007.
Huh? Who nowadays could get fired up about modern art? The answer is: Anyone who sees this film.
“My Kid Could Paint That” is much more than the sum of its premise, in large part because Bar-Lev takes the audience on the same journey he experienced as the filmmaker. In 2004, a tow-headed little angel named Marla became a sensation of the art world when, at age 4, she began producing colorful abstract painting that were a hit with patrons (she had her own solo show before entering kindergarten) and art critics alike.
But there was some backlash among the establishment. If a toddler can produce viable “modern art,” the argument went, then can there be such a thing in the first place? That was the film Bar-Lev set out to make.
But something happened along the way. During filming, a psychologist who works with child prodigies speculated on national TV that Marla didn’t really create the paintings herself that probably her father was making them and having his daughter sign them.
And for Bar-Lev, everything changed. Suddenly he became skeptical, and film veered into a kind of paranoia was he being duped? If Marla really was responsible for the paintings, why had he never filmed her creating her best work?
But for at least one viewer, Marla and the parents remained blameless, and the filming started to smack of recorded betrayal.
So when I sat down with Bar-Lev by the swimming pool at the Mansion on Turtle Creek recently to talk about the film, I didn’t hide my disagreements. And he didn’t seem to mind.
Here’s what happened.
Dallas Voice. I have to say up-front: I think Marla did the paintings herself and ultimately, your skepticism bothers me.
Bar-Lev. That’s good. You’re not the only one I have at times believed them, too. That’s why it’s an interesting mystery, and why the alleged hoax has so many elements of tragedy.
Q. It’s those kind of comments that are so frustrating. We see Marla painting
A. Marla definitely paints she’s been filmed paining to a robust degree. It’s not about Marla; we’re talking about the parents. No one has ever accused Marla of being a part of it.
Q. But to me, no valid accusation has ever been made against the parents, either. The first person to suggest the father painted them was the psychologist interviewed on “60 Minutes” a woman with no bona fides as an art critic who never met any of the people involved. Her accusation seems to come out of nowhere, and even feels as if she feels spiteful for possibly having been fooled.
A. I felt very conflicted and torn about this. My greatest aspiration would be that people would draw the conclusions you’re drawing.
Q. In fact, you seemed to believe in Marla until the episode of “60 Minutes.” Was that the turning point for you?
A. Right after “60 Minutes,” my faith was not really broken. You see in the film a small cycle of one turning it over and over in my mind. In reality, this was months and months of me adding it up and getting wildly different conclusions. What began to sow seeds of doubt was the repeated failure to get footage of Marla painting in a way that looked like some of her early paintings. My doubts came from looking at the paintings against one another.
Q. As a writer, my concern about that is best expressed by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: That the act of observing a thing affects that thing. If someone came to my office to film me writing one day, and I was a little self-conscious having them there, I worry that they might say, “Gee, that article isn’t as good as his last one maybe he’s been plagiarizing all these years.”
A. But I think the idea that genius somehow comes from on high and when no one’s around, that she becomes infused with some spirit [is not believable]. On the other side is the idea that what they did was a complete sham from the start. I think the truth lies between these two poles.
Q. Although you genuinely lost confidence that these were Marla’s paintings, you kind of resist saying so outright or accusing the parents to their faces. Why?
A. There’s no knockout punch in the film. At the end, I ask if the father helped in some way, saying it wouldn’t surprise me [and giving him an out]. But he wouldn’t say it. That was the limit of how far I wanted to go in my “Law & Order”-style investigation. I don’t want to see that type of show; I don’t want to be that guy [who traps them into a confession].
Q. One reason I tend to believe them is because they didn’t really set out to be art stars they sincerely seemed surprised by the continuing interest in Marla and weren’t trying to do this for money.
A. I agree 100 percent that they were not motivated at all by greed. If some type of collaboration occurred that was not admitted to, it was because of a story that got out of control.
Q. You started out making a very different film, it seemed to me one about art, not really about the provenance of this girl’s work. Was your intent to make a film about the validity of modern art in general?
A. I have no art background, and I’m hoping the film is not misread as an attack on modern art. My film is exploring skepticism and not perpetuating the perception that modern art is a sham. The skepticism people have about modern art arises because it is seen to have no objective standards you’re forced to make up your mind. I want to ask, why is it a problem of modern art that there aren’t these standards why isn’t that a strength?
But the story, the provenance of a painting is in part what gives it value. Stories often have as much value as the real thing.
A. It’s a cop-out to say everyone’s entitled to an opinion that’s always true. A lot of having a worthwhile opinion is learning about a thing.
“My Kid Could Paint That” opens today at the Angelika Film Center Dallas.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 2, 2007