‘Art and Craft’
Directors: Sam Cullen, Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker
4 (out of 5) Globes
Mark Landis is a soft-voiced, socially backward, but endlessly blabbering homebody who you would never suspect is one of the modern day’s great art forgers. For the last 30 years Landis has been doing scarily spot-on recreations of great paintings, often using no more than color pencils and Wal-Mart frames. He then bequeathed these copies to museums who were hungry for more wares, but not focused enough to check if the same piece didn’t already live at other institutions — or even institutions that had hung the same Landis-made forgeries on their walls.
Landis didn’t just donate them; he adopted aliases, made up stories, even family members (including a sister, intended, he says, to make him more sympathetic). Sometimes he posed as a priest. It was all calculated and planned, and his reign of terror didn’t even come to an end after a dogged Cincinnati curator, Mark Leininger, busted him. But there was a fun catch: Landis never charged for the donations, but simply gave them for free, so what he did was technically legal.
And yet who could hate this man? (Even Leininger, who basically ruined his career in pursuit of Landis, kind of likes him.) What was intended to be a lurid stranger-than-fiction tale of high insanity in the world of high art instead turns into a gentle, loving character study that takes an empathetic, if still deeply puzzled, look at an unknowable man. He’s “off” (in a way the filmmakers wisely never try to diagnose) but, his scams aside, generally means well. He’s a lonely loner who doodles all day with TCM blaring in the background; he greets a film crew as a chance for someone to finally pay attention to him. Indeed his pranks were clearly made for the brief company and accolades — for people to thank him for his unbelievably generous gifts.
Thing is, he is an artist, in a way. “Art and Craft” doesn’t entirely ignore the ethics of his crimes, but it does put them off to the side and acknowledges that it takes real skill and craft to do what he did. Because what he did wasn’t technically illegal — just terribly, terribly wrong — it’s easier to indulge in that side. Many in the film do just that; at one point he even gets a gallery of his copies, and instead of deriding him for making forgeries, most attendees warmly praise him as a real artist. Landis denies this, and his modesty seems sincere.
Indeed, the question of whether he’s an artist or not hangs there, unanswered. Landis has talent, and even made his own originals. But he was faced with a problem: He didn’t know what to paint. He’s an artist without subjects, so his subjects became other people’s work. (He likes to do portraits and religious subjects.) He’s what happens when someone has talent but no muse — a problem that surely haunts many of us.