Thursday, July 10, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That--Now on Video

Since I gave a shout out to Honeydripper's DVD release last week, I thought I should mention that another one of my favorite films from 2007 is now available on DVD. The indie documentary My Kid Could Paint That delivers an interesting and engaging case study about the nature of art, the role of media, and the tantalizing uncertainty of first impressions. Here is a link to my original review at Looking Closer.

More recently, Jeffrey Overstreet has been praising the film at his blog, and I agree with him that it stands up quite well to repeated viewings. Like a good painting, the film has features that the viewer might notice in different viewings, so sustained attention is rewarded.

One of my favorite exchanges in the documentary comes late in the film, and is (I thought) relatively subtle. Director Amir Bar-Lev is interviewing art critic Michael Kimmelman. Like most (but not all) of the interviews, this one is presented in the form of a sound clip by one participant--we only see one person and the interview is edited so that we hear the person's opinions or ideas but not how they form or develop. I don't mean to imply that this is deceptive; it is readily apparent that these are clips of broader, longer exchanges, and at times the person being interviewed speaks to the camera as though he or she is speaking to Bar-Lev.

Kimmelman is an effective and smooth speaker, and so his sound bites have an extempore feeling to them. That is why it is a little surprising when in one exchange, Bar-Lev leaves the camera on Kimmelman but includes an exchange between him and the interviewer (presumably Bar-Lev) that might otherwise have been edited out:

Kimmelman: All writers, all storytellers, are imposing their own narrative on something. I mean all art is some ways is a lie. It looks like a picture of something, but it isn't that thing, it's a representation of that thing. Your documentary is on some level going to be a lie, it's your construction of things. I mean, I'll say that right now if you like...

Bar-Lev: Yes. yes, please...yeah.

[Pause. Kimmelman looks away, collects his thought, turns back to the camera for another "take."]

Kimmelman: I mean your documentary is itself going to be a lie. It's a construction of things. It's how you wish to represent the truth [and] how you decided to tell a particular story. By that I don't mean that certain things don't happen. Of course they do. It's not that there's no such thing as truth, but we come to like and trust a certain story not necessarily because it's the most absolutely truthful but because it's a thing that we tell ourselves that makes sense of the world, at least at this moment....

Now, I love the way Bar-Lev leaves in both takes...or the interruption to the longer take with the overlap of the key sentence. In doing so, he reinforces structurally (formally) two themes that are so prominently explored in the speech and the film as a whole. First, it reminds us at a key moment that everything we are seeing is edited, filtered, and spun. Most of us have no first hand knowledge of Marla, her parents, or any of the people involved. More importantly, though, because the camera lends an air of authenticity to our experience, we tend to receive these speeches as we would if someone were in front of us making them, and tend (perhaps, unless we are very well practiced in watching media presentations but together) to experience them, receive them, process them, as though they were regular conversations rather than rehearsed and edited speech acts made in a different context from which we often hear them. (In my review, I mention how this theme is reinforced in the confrontation between Marla's mother and Bar-Lev in which her ambiguous "documentary gold" comment can be read as an attempt to embed the context within the interview itself--to remind the viewer that what he is seeing, although it may look like an everyday conversation is really something else.

The other point I'd make about the Kimmelman/Bar-Lev exchange is that in a metastructural way, it mirrors the process of creation that critics of the Olmstead insinuate is used to create Marla's paintings. I said in my review that I thought Kimmelman was a knock out in this film--he's articulate, knowledgeable, affable, insightful. His contributions to the film help make it a success. But isn't most art collaborative on some level? The director doesn't merely turn on a camera and microphone and record the result--he helps shape the speeches by prodding, coaxing, leading. And Kimmelman, as a professional assists in this process. Do you want me to say it this bluntly? Do you need a better segue? Do you want me to say it again? The line between conversation, preparation, and articulation is hopelessly blurred. Has Bar-Lev put the words (or ideas) into Kimmelman's mouth? Of course not. But he has encouraged certain trains of thought (and presumably edited out others), and this isn't all that much different from the way Marla's father lays out paints and canvases for her or reports at one point that he suggested she hold the brush differently. There are differences, certainly. Kimmelman is an adult and a professional for two, and as this scene also illustrates, he is aware of the nature of the documentary process and participates in it willingly.

It's not that the meaning of Kimmelman's speech would be that different if the parts in bold were redacted. It wouldn't be. But that's the point and (I think) the brilliance of Bar-Lev leaving it in. What would be different is the feeling of it. We get to see for the film what the critics claim they don't get to see in Marla's paintings--the process. And by seeing (parts of) the process, we have the confidence that the film is a fairly accurate representation of the events that transpired that we might not otherwise have if we were presented only with the finished product.

Or do we? The decision to include that one unedited--I use the term for convenience's sake, though all exchanges are, of course, edited to one degree or another--scene was certainly a conscious choice. We don't see the process of the film being put together, we only get the feeling that we do because it is so well put together. The depiction of the process is only partial, like the Ocean documentary that apparently didn't satisfy Bar-Lev (or at least put his doubts to rest). Just as Laura Olmstead suggests in her "documentary gold" speech that it is possible Bar-Lev could be constructing a confrontation not (merely) to assuage his doubts but to make his film more dramatic, so too a cynic might say, a clever artist or politician can carefully create the illusion of spontaneity or transparency (perhaps by including a sample clip that is unedited) in order to build trust or divert our attention from (rather than call our attention to) the fact that this particular instance stands out precisely because the audience being allowed to see the process is the exception rather than the rule.

Do I think this is what happened? No. Bar-Lev's documentary felt to me more like an honest attempt to be transparent rather than a cleverly constructed illusion of transparency. I think the above exchange was a sincere attempt to draw subtle, structural attention to the edited nature of documentary film by an artist himself pursing the artistic problem of how to represent a story (in this case the story of the film in his involvement in it) in as transparent a way possible. But my point is, we don't know. The better/more skilled the artist, the harder it is to distinguish between flawless performance and transparency.

Or, perhaps, I'm just more attracted to that story of the documentary because it more closely approximates my own relationship to truth in a media age. It's easy in a cynical age to just throw up our hands and say "truth is unknowable," therefore I'll never trust anyone or waste time trying to make informed, reasonable estimations of truth, even if I know they can never be infallible. Art (in my experience) that acknowledges that truth is hard to find but worth working to uncover whether or not we are always successful is fascinating and heartening. Art (or argument) that says truth is unknowable and thus trying to uncover it is a waste of time tends to be didactic, shrill, sensationalist (for sensation's sake), dreary, and tedious.

My Kid Could Paint That was, for me, definitely more of the former than the latter.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Overstreet said...

I *love* that moment. It gave me much more respect for Bar-Lev, as it inclines me to believe he's fully aware of nuances in the film that I might have otherwise considered happy accidents. And it made me an even bigger fan of Kimmelman. I'm going to have to re-read The Accidental Masterpiece.