Here’s the final review from the Toronto International Film Festival written for Looking Closer by Ken Morefield of Campbell University. Thank you, Ken, for such thoughtful reflections on what look like very exciting films.
One of the pleasures of attending The Toronto International Film Festival is discovering new films and, perhaps, being part of the buzz that earns them a wider screening. Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary is just the sort of film that I’m glad I saw and hope to garner some attention for. It begins as a fairly straightforward chronicle of four year-old Marla Olmstead from Binghamton, New York, whose purported work has made thousands of dollars for her family. In the wake of a “60 Minutes” report that all but calls her parents liars and her paintings fake, it becomes an examination of mass-media and its role in shaping our conception of the truth. Linking both halves of the film is an earnest examination of modern art and why so many people hate it.
As a literary critic, teacher, and occasional film critic, one element of the film that I appreciated was the participation and presentation of New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. It is rare in mass media these days for a critic to be portrayed as insightful or knowledgeable. Usually the critic is portrayed as pompous, egotistical, and/or completely self-serving. Kimmelman does an excellent job here. He doesn’t endorse or refute the paintings but he does help explain their popularity by explaining how some strains of modern art intentionally provoke and alienate the audience. “Nobody is saying ‘fuck you’ in this painting,” Kimmelman says of Olmstead’s alleged work and why so many people find it refreshing.
Ironically, though, that is exactly what “60 Minutes” says someone, presumably Marla’s father is saying with the paintings. The Olmstead’s inability to capture Marla’s creative process from start to finish makes cynics doubt that she created her best works without coaching and left Bar-Lev himself with doubts. (The film does cover the creation of a DVD that documents the creation of the painting “Ocean” that the Olmsteads claim vindicate them but which others say lacks the quality of “Marla”’s better work.)
Gallery proprietor and artist Anthony Brunnelli in the wake of the report admits to showing her work to send just such a message to the modern art establishment, confessing his frustration that his own, photorealist work was deemed less valuable than some stuff that looks like a kid could paint.
The film doesn’t take sides, and I would be the first to be annoyed if I thought its reason for doing so was circumspection or some sort of philosophical belief that the truth was unknowable. Bar-Lev, though, genuinely seems to want to take sides, and his inability to do so, as seen primarily in a camera confessional en route to the Olmsteads lends the film an air of tragedy that helps make it something more than a prolonged newsmagazine report. The fact that Bar-Lev so desperately wants to believe the Olmsteads but can’t bring himself to endorse their version of events can be (and is at various times) chalked up to cynicism (not wanting to be fooled like everyone else), integrity (wanting to retain a journalistic neutrality), and delusion (not wanting to hurt people he likes).
It is as a case study about media that the film becomes great rather than pedestrian. It confronts us with the fact that so much of the information upon which we make important decisions (who to believe is the hardest decision in all walks of life) is mediated for us through the perceptions and judgments of others. When Laura Olmstead tears up on camera at Bar-Lev’s accusation and he apologizes to her for bringing “this” into her home she says of her breakdown that it is “documentary gold.” True. One could very easily accept her spin on events, that Bar-Lev is an opportunistic invader of privacy that is goading her for his own ends.
Such a reading would not be inconsistent with our public, mediated perception of journalists and filmmakers. Then again, one could just as easily think that Laura is acting the role of the shocked and falsely accused innocent on camera, carefully planting the seeds of doubt about the documentary that she senses may be heading in a direction she doesn’t like. Such a reading would not be inconsistent with our public, mediated perception of celebrities (real or pseudo) and their ability to manipulate interviews.
In one sense, the reason the film works even without answering the central question of whether or not Marla was the true creator of all the work attributed to her is that it forces us to ask the further question of why that answer matters to begin with.
After the “60 Minutes” report, the first person we see buying an Olmstead painting is a woman who clearly is not enamored of the work but does so because a young relative liked “the Mickey Mouse ears” she saw outlined in it. Her reason sounds trivial and appears to denigrate the painting, but it isn’t really substantially different from that of the enthusiastic collector who constructs an elaborate narrative to accompany the painting “Bottom Feeder.” Perhaps this is alienation not between the artist and the viewing public but the collector and the viewing public. I found myself thinking, “If you bought it only because it was valuable, then a pox on both you and the seller; you deserve each other.” Or, “If you bought it because you liked it, then shouldn’t it not matter who painted it?”
The answer to that last question, as Kimmelman and others point out, is, “not necessarily,” because our reasons for “liking” art enough to pay thousands of dollars for it are as varied as our motives for valuing anything. When people buy an Olmstead painting, it may not be for aesthetic or formal reasons—hey are buying the story, which means there is something about the story that brings them pleasure, whether it be sticking it to the art world or validating a conception of youthful innocence.
Change the story, the argument goes, and you’ve changed, maybe even destroyed, the art’s value. The question of whether art’s value is (or ought to be) intrinsic or extrinsic may not have an objectively true answer. The documentary, on its surface, would seem to promote the idea that extrinsic factors are more easily manipulated and hence shouldn’t really be all that important to us. That stance, while defensible, is still a bit too superficial. What makes art valuable at all is its ability to spark a personal response from us, and extrinsic factors as much as formal aesthetic ones are a part of that response. Why do I love paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi but feel nothing when shown a work by Gian Lorenzo Bernini? Could it be that the story comes packaged in my mind with an inspiring story that predisposes me to look at it favorably?
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Assistant Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.