Friday, November 16, 2007

My Kid Could Paint That

Above behold Jackson Pollock's "The Laughing Squid:" a masterpiece?

Yes, this painting is pleasing at some level, but something we should consider a pinnacle of our civilization? An interpretation of squid laughing only unveiled by the artist himself? Or a splotch of no meaning at all? And meant to be that.

My Kid Could Paint That sets out to explore just these issues, is abstract expressionism elaborate intellectual masturbation mixed with 94% hucksterism or something we should celebrate as a radical form of uhm... expression. I say sets out because after an initial love fest spent with Upstate New York's Gen X "Leave it to Beaver" Olmstead family with the prodigal daughter, whose 4 year old's paintings were getting ink in the New York Times, the film maker inadvertently shifts gears chronicling a family in crisis. Why the crisis? Because the intrepid journalists at 60 Minutes had once again sniffed out some bullshoot and planted a camera and mic in the basement of the budding artist's home to see if she can actually produce the works that are now fetching thousands, not just in the greater Binghamton, NY area, but soon to be at Sotheby's. You can guess the outcome. But what becomes most compelling at about a third the way into My Kid is whether Bar-Lev, the film maker, should continue now that he smells a rat. The other compelling story line is whether not beautiful mom can now believe her Eddie Vedder look alike husband who shifts and squirms on film as if recently afflicted with a bad case of Cholera when asked about the authorship of the paintings.

Amir Bar-Lev puts himself, and the issue at hand, out there. He likes the family. They like him. But he knows if he continues on he is part of the problem. So what's an earnest documentarian to do? In interview after interview, non-chronologically, Bar-Lev in a seemingly honest way, tries to figure out whether or not to continue. Is he betraying his new found confidants? Does he have a duty to expose the fraud? Some characters come off sleazy and calculatingly unconcerned with any of these issues as long as they make a buck but our films true protaganist, Laura Olmstead, the mom, seems to have an epiphany on film. And at its core it is the question of her entire life; is my husband a lying piece of da-da? The dilemma of filmer and watcher, and eventually participant, is why exactly should we be taking part in this Montell moment? The voyuerism is bile inducing, I thought of walking out, but at the same time I thought they, maybe Vedder more than she, wanted this exposure. They invited the filmmaker into their home. They cashed the checks. They mounted a defense even after the 60 Minutes episode. Did she really have no doubt? She wanted the fame and the chava.

A good film always keeps you thinking, not just about the topic at hand but about one's own dilemmas. My Kid will get you thinking.


edk said...

You know -- abstract expressionism was a State Department funded scam. Really. Something about trying to establish U.S. cultural superiority.

stephen wetzel said...

"You know -- abstract expressionism was a State Department funded scam. Really. Something about trying to establish U.S. cultural superiority."

The above comment is entirely inaccurate. You're referring to Guilbaut's book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, or you're referring to someone else's remarks regarding this book. Abstract expressionism was not a project in hucksterism, or a State Department scam, or a cheap creative trick, etc. The way in which abstract work was USED or appropriated is an entirely different issue than what the ideals or allegiances or inclinations of its makers were. One can think of modernist abstraction as a foil to socialist realism, as an attempt at finding Form, as a gesture toward our much-beloved notions of individualism, as an earnest unconventional practice in the face of rampant social status quo, as an expression of radical uncertainty after 2 world wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation, and so on and so forth.

I'm very suspicious of simplistic attacks on abstract expressionism not because I am especially endeared to the work, but because the reasons for disparaging it seem hollow, and all too often its real achievements go unrecognized. These were artists who pushed the limits of representation. Yes, sure, they were certainly building on the backs of others; their work wasn't unprecedented in the same way that no work is unprecedented, no work appears from thin air. But, whatever... at least they had the gall to assert the importance of their work, had the gall to produce something that was, at the time, entirely uncommercial and entirely refused by the general public. By and large, I'll take abstract expressionism, as a cultural effort, over classic Hollywood film, socialist realism, wildlife painting, crime novels, the entirety of television, portraiture, if no other reason than the best of these works, the best of modernist abstraction, sought to confound and challenge, not to pacify and stupefy.

I have just stepped down from my box, and walk away very satisfied.