Art and Craft boasts one of the most delightfully unusual stories on film this year. Directors Jennifer Grausman and Sam Cullman found a terrific subject to work with, and while there are plenty documentaries that squander promising characters and subject matter, what makes this one stick out is its marvelous tone. If you didn’t know it was real, you could mistake it for a Christopher Guest mockumentary, so perfectly does it play with its quirky collective of people and the strange things that are happening to them. It has the right balance of dry remove and the willingness to peek closer in moments of vulnerability.
Mark Landis is one of the world’s most talented forgers, certainly the most prolific. Over a 20-year period, this unassuming man produced hundreds of reproductions of various works of art. The range of his abilities is impressive — he can copy with uncanny precision a Walt Disney doodle just as easily as a Picasso. But unlike other infamous forgers, Landis has served no prison time, nor has he even had any criminal charges brought against him for his actions. That’s because he’s donated every fake he’s produced to museums, churches and other public or otherwise nonprofit institutions. He hasn’t made a cent off his fraud. That raises the obvious question of why he does it in the first place, and the answer is what Art and Craft is most interested in pursuing.
The doc is more about isolation and the ways people seek to break it than about art or the art world. Landis is exceedingly eccentric, often muttering half to himself and half to the camera, speaking in a coarse, uncomfortably blunt manner. There’s a sense he would be narrating his calculated moves out-loud even if there were no one else present. But whenever he puts on a disguise in order to donate one of his forgeries, he gets to play the part of someone who can interact with others on a normal level. When he walks into a museum as an eccentric philanthropist or the executor of someone’s will or a Jesuit priest who’s inherited a painting from his mother, he gets to become a patron, someone to be appreciated rather than scorned. The duality of his reticence towards normative social behavior and his want to connect is sympathetic and compelling.
Like all good con artist movies, Art and Craft recognizes the thrill an audience gets out of the minute details of a scheme. The cameras tag along with Landis as he spins his Jesuit priest identity around himself and then easily dupes a hapless mark. And another needed quality for such a film is the dedicated nemesis, and Landis has one in the form of Matthew Leininger, the registrar of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Leininger figured out that the works Landis had given him were copies, and he’s spent several years since investigating the fraud and trying to warn other museums to keep an eye out for him.
Like everything else in the film, their war is skewed through a lens of quiet amusement. The exceptionally low-stakes nature of Landis’s misdeeds means that nothing can ever get too serious, and Leininger’s ultimate method of solving the problem is a novel one. The film climaxes in a way that I doubt anyone would have predict (unless they already knew Landis’s story going in, but those people are cheaters). It actually gives Landis what he seems to have been seeking all this time, and the result is actually quite touching.
Art and Craft joins the ranks of the best docs made about the curious world of fine art and its devotees. So much in this field, especially value, comes down to perception. The fact that the paintings Landis donated weren’t the originals didn’t matter one whit to any of the laymen who viewed them. But every museum pulled those works off their walls as soon as they found out they’d been duped, in order to protect their credibility. For Landis, respectability is a game that’s easy for him to analyze and even easier for him to rig, and his forgeries are his entry fee. Everyone puts up some sort of facade to get what they want out of other people — he just does it more blatantly and shamelessly than others. This allows viewers to look at Landis and think about themselves.
Art and Craft is now playing in New York City and opens in Los Angeles next week. Check the film’s website for other upcoming cities.