Monday, September 15, 2014

An anti-hero of the art world drives Cullman, Grausman & Becker's brilliant ART AND CRAFT

Another first-class documentary arrives in theaters this week: ART AND CRAFT, the tale of a most unusual art forger that our current art world, I suspect, would rather keep under wraps. The product of a directorial trio -- Sam Cullman (below, right, and co-director of the Oscar-nominated If a Tree Falls), Jennifer Grausman (below, left) and Mark Becker (who, along with Ms Grausman, co-directed Pressure Cooker), the movie introduces us to a Virginia-born fellow named Mark Landis, a quietly self-effacing man nearing sixty years of age with a voice somewhat like that of the late Truman Capote and a skill for drawing and painting in multiple styles that is simply uncanny.

Mr. Landis pretty much tells us his own tale, with some prodding from a journalist or two hoping to get a good story out of all this. (They do, as do the moviemakers.) Such a quiet, non-threatening man is Landis, with his slight frame, large ears, bald head and near-apologetic attitude that he finally becomes one of the more endearing, if sad, narrators in the history of documentaries.

With some difficult family history, and problems both mental (he is said to be schizophrenic) and physical, the movie offers some extra suspense in regard to whether or not this odd little man will make it to the next frame of the film. Landis may be an art forger, but he is not, we are told, a criminal because he has never profited from any of his forgeries. He creates them and then "donates" them to various museum around the country -- who have proven only too willing to accept this "largess."

Landis, it turns out, is as adept at forging Watteau as he is Walt Disney, Daumier and Picasso, and he also excels at disguise of sorts (dressing up as a man-of-god, he claims to have learned how to do all this from the British TV series Father Brown) and at creating the special "provenance" that attends each piece of art that he donates.

Forger or not, you're unlikely to find a "dearer," more soothing fellow on screen these days, and the movie-makers have surrounded him with some other very interesting characters, too. There are those journalists, a few of the museum folk he's fooled, and especially the man -- Matt Leininger (above, left), the former registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art-- who first "cottoned on" to Landis' scams back in 2008 and has become, over the ensuing years, a tad obsessive about tracking him down and making sure that he can't continue on this forgery route.

We get to know Leininger, not as well as we do Landis, but well enough to identify with and enjoy him. The filmmakers, in their unobtrusive way, have managed to capture both men quite beautifully, particularly Mr. Landis -- who will almost immediately become, in the words of that old Readers' Digest phrase, one of the most unforgettable characters you have ever met.

We get enough of Landis' family history, in addition to seeing him with doctors and social workers, to realize that he is "off the grid" in certain aspects. This serves to keep us viewers just a little off balance, as we try to piece together how far off our artist/forger actually is. Is he schizoid, bi-polar, and just "different"? And what of the all those duped curators and registrars in the museums whom our guy fooled. Is "due diligence" not worth bothering about any longer?

By the time an actual art show of Landis' work is being organized for an opening at an Ohio museum, the ironies are flying so thick and fast that you'll have to take a breath. "Do you plan on continuing to 'gift'?"the artist is asked during the opening of the show. He pauses to consider, and then: "I'll have to think about it," he answers.

Art and Craft , from Oscilloscope, is surely one of the most graceful and sweet, endearing and enduring documentaries about an outsider and his world that we have yet seen. It opens in New York theaters -- at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas -- this Friday, September 19, and will hit Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt on Friday, September 26. In the weeks and months to come, it will play another 20-odd cities and theaters. For all currently scheduled playdates, click here and scroll down.

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