From Tim to Marla – Home Media Invasions

26 01 2007

Homeschooled national champion quarterback Tim Tebow and his parents became media stars and the glow hasn’t turned to glare (yet). But the Olmsteads and their ethereal little home artist Marla are a cautionary media tale now making the jump to the big screen at the Sundance Film Festival. Talk about learning life lessons the hard way . . .

“The film makes us confront the realities of the media process, the predatory aspects of journalism, filmmaking and storytelling. There is a constant need to feed a 24-hour news cycle, but what about the people we write about? What happens to them?”

More often than not, the apparatus unpacks, gets what it needs and then leaves town, leaving the subjects to try and reassemble their lives. Speaking on the phone, Ms. Olmstead was friendly, but understandably reluctant to re-engage with the press. It was not the first time she had heard something along the lines of, “Hi, I’m from the media and I’m here to help you.”

. . .“When we met Amir Bar-Lev three years ago and he expressed interest in our daughter’s work, we welcomed him into our home and lives. But we are heartbroken by some of the choices he made in his portrayal of our family . . .”

The film raises questions about the custody of a given story. Very often regular people are enrolled in the effort, but in the end, the author, not the subject, is the owner of the narrative. The choices are his — in the editing, in the framing, in the end.

“Marla’s paintings are like a Rorschach,” he said. “Some people see a kind of divinity when they look into them and others see a hoax. I wanted to do a David and Goliath story, one that exonerated the family. That story didn’t turn out.”

Exonerated them of WHAT??

I distinctly remember seeing this shy but self-possessed little girl phenom older than four but not by much, with a fat blond braid and her huge colorful canvases, on a daytime tv feature, maybe with Katie Couric on TODAY? Does anyone else remember?

I remember wondering then what her parents were thinking,
exposing her to that public media world at that age and how it would turn out for them, and for her. (The way we wondered about young Brooke Shields or Jodie Foster, or to be au courant, Dakota Fanning.)

Four-year-olds in truth can’t create much apart from their parents’ support and interaction, so I don’t remember doubting whether she had painted the works without any “help” from her parents — silly to even ask or think she could have done, in any meaningful sense, to me — but I did doubt whether her finished paintings were truly worth all the critical public fuss as real “art” commanding such astonishing sums. That they did command such sums was I suppose, what justified the resulting hoax investigation? But what if the family had refused to market the paintings or the child? Is the objective “truth” of the creative process any different, either way?

I find myself wondering the same about this film. Maybe human-scaled storytelling that sees each parent-child relationship as a work of original art in progress, more honestly interprets family with less mass media distortion, than the harsh and literal lens of the (supposedly sympathetic but in fact exploitative) documentarian?

60 Minutes Wednesday asked the Olmsteads if it could videotape Marla painting a single work from start to finish. But they told us she is uncomfortable in front of a camera . . .”it’s not in her makeup,” says Marla’s father, Mark. “And you’re not gonna see what she does if you’re sitting there with 14 cameras. Or if we could put her in the middle of an auditorium one time and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, pay-per-view, here’s Marla painting.’ If we could do it, we would do it.”

Almost two months after our interview, the Olmsteads agreed to let 60 Minutes Wednesday place a concealed camera where Marla paints, so she wouldn’t be distracted by its presence.

Beginning on a canvas primed red by her father, it took Marla about five hours of painting, spread over the course of a month, to complete a piece.

60 Minutes Wednesday asked Winner to review the tapes. [Ellen Winner is a psychologist who has studied gifted children and specializes in visual arts.]

“My mind was not changed by watching 4-and-a-half hours of home videotape. I saw her making very ordinary kinds of marks, no different from what a typical 3- or 4-year-old would make. She didn’t seem to have any overall plan. And she didn’t seem very focused,” says Winner.

“I saw no evidence that she was a child prodigy in painting. I saw a normal, charming adorable child painting, the way preschool children paint, except that she had a coach that kept her going.”

Her coach is her father, Mark, who is often present when Marla paints. He can be heard on the tape, directing her, sometimes sternly:

“Pssst …. Paint the red. Paint the red. You’re driving me crazy. Paint the red.”

“If you paint, honey, like you were … This is not the way it should be.”

Winner suspects that without her father’s urging, Marla would not have the focus or desire to stay with one painting as long as she did on the tapes.

“I think she’s being urged to continue. Many times she says, ‘I’m done,’ and there would be silence and she would continue to paint,'” says Winner.

Marla’s parents told 60 Minutes Wednesday that the painting was a struggle for their daughter, saying she seemed stuck. Still, during the month or so that the hidden camera was in their home, they claim Marla was able to finish four other paintings off camera, with no problems at all.

Winner also believes the painting captured on the 60 Minutes Wednesday tape is less polished than some of Marla’s previous works. How does she explain that difference?

“I can only speculate. I don’t see Marla as having made, or at least completed, the more polished looking paintings, because they look like a completely different painter,” says Winner. “Either somebody else painting them start to finish, or somebody else doctored them up. Or Marla just miraculously paints in a completely different way than we see on her home video.”

And Winner isn’t the only skeptic. 60 Minutes Wednesday spoke with two other specialists in children’s art. While they didn’t study Marla as intensively, they independently raised similar concerns.

60 Minutes Wednesday revisited the Olmsteads, who stand by their story.

“No one has interfered with Marla’s paintings. No one has touched any paint to her canvases, other than the priming and the outlining the edge of the canvas that Mark has done,” says Laura. “Neither of us have done that. Neither of us would allow someone to do that, ever.”

The Olmsteads also told 60 Minutes Wednesday that any opinions based on the concealed camera footage are unfair, because it does not reflect Marla’s true creative process.

“She didn’t pick the place this time. She didn’t pick when she got to paint,” says Laura. “It was basically us saying, ‘OK, Marla, do your stuff and do it right here,’ It was a false environment for her.”

“It turned out to be more static and strict,” adds Mark. “And that’s not the way she does it.”

As to Winner’s claim that Marla was being heavily coached, her parents explained they felt pressured by the hidden camera, and behaved differently towards their daughter.

“We were tense and nervous about it,” says Laura. “There were points on the hidden camera film where we probably, because we wanted to show that she was indeed the person doing these paintings and nobody else, that we probably did force the issue.”

“This was a little more pressure-packed,” says Mark. “And what Marla read from me may have been different than a typical painting.”

Finally, the Olmsteads say that as parents, they would never do anything to embarrass their daughter. And that Marla will continue to paint with their love and support.

“It’s a story that invites skepticism. And there will be skeptics,” says Laura. “And, you know, as long as the people who are purchasing the work believe Marla did it, and as long as our friends and family, and the people that matter believe it, that’s enough for me.”



6 responses

26 01 2007

Thinking more about the money – Tim Tebow is still in college so he hasn’t been allowed under NCAA football rules to accept any money yet. Maybe that’s why he is still a media darling? But money does factor into why people oppose homeschoolers playing public school sports or enrolling in other programs of choice. Tax money that is. It is called cheating all the time, even by the very people whose salaries are paid from those taxes.

And talk about coaching! – we assume coaching is an important part of any football player’s development and personal success, and of the team game plan. But for Marla, do the media seem to think her talents would be more impressive WITHOUT coaching or a customized family game plan, and what would that suggest about schooling and coaching for kids generally?

Hmmm, I think the larger power of these stories is CLOSELY connected . . .

26 01 2007

And connecting it to Dakota Fanning – in that case, the whole power of story rests on the opposite argument, that she remains a child and isn’t being treated as an independent adult artist. The defense of her precocious (and no doubt professionally directed/coached) acting is that it actually ISN’T true, that the child is not really engaging in the full gamut of adult emotions and experience to create her preformance, that she is only creating a media illusion of seeming to have done so.

So – doesn’t that sound like what the Olmsteads might have done? Say they created a sensational and very marketable media illusion of their young daughter being an adult artist? Who would be cheated then, and out of what?

(Commenters to this old blogpost say the child herself.)

26 01 2007

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that’s worth knowing can be taught.” –Oscar Wilde

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