Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard earned dollar.
This week brings us Art and Craft, a charming and satisfying look at notorious art forger Mark Landis.
The Long Con
Art and Craft opens with a skeletal, hunched over Landis strolling through a Hobby Lobby. He darts from aisle to aisle gathering art supplies. Light jazz plays over the scene and sets up a playful tone for the story that follows.
We next find Mark at his home, a hoarder’s space cluttered with art books, sketches, frames and paintings. If you didn’t know any better, you would simply think he was an eccentric artist. Mark immediately sets to work with his new supplies. He works quickly and meticulously as his soft voice plays over the scene telling a little about himself. His finished product is sharp, confident and lovely to look at…it’s also a forgery.
With no hesitation, Mark sets out to pass his latest work off to an eager gallery owner.
Dangerously underweight, slight in voice, not-so-completely bald and generally uncomfortable, this is the notorious Mark Landis – art forger extraordinaire. Not exactly what you’d expect? That’s just the point. Behind clever backstories just credible enough to satisfy (often posing as a Jesuit priest), Landis passed off over 100 forgeries to 46 different galleries throughout the United States over a 30 year span. Covering artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Charles Schulz, his work was good enough to fool even the most seasoned art collectors. Save for the obsessive dedication of registrar Matthew Leinenger, Landis’ forgeries may never have been discovered.
If you are wondering why Landis has never spent any time behind bars, the answer is simple…he has never accepted any money for his work. No money, no crime. He just likes to trick people, and the people he tricks really should know better.
Art and Craft picks up Landis’ story not long after his official outing at the hands of Financial Times and follows him as he comes to terms with his legacy. At 89 minutes, Art and Craft is a fascinating look into one supremely odd man’s desire simply to copy things.
“I Just Like To Copy Things.”
So explains Landis when asked why he began forging art. Simple as that. He began copying art as a child from tourism books collected by his parents and never stopped. Through years of practice and with a bit of training, Landis mastered the art of forgery. He even worked for a short time as an art restorer, which certainly explains his unique gifts for making things look old and authentic. In 1988, Landis donated his forgery of a Maynard Dixon painting to a California museum in memory of his father. In his own words, Landis explains, “I just became addicted to being a philanthropist.” It’s ok to chuckle at Landis’ idea of philanthropy. You’re supposed to, even if there is a level of obsession behind that addiction.
Of course, there were other problems driving that obsession. While Art and Craft generally maintains a light tone, the filmmakers spend quite a bit of time examining Landis’ history of mental problems. Nervous breakdowns, obsessive behaviors, mommy issues and even schizophrenia abound in this artist’s life story, but these issues offer a glimpse into how he became an artist with no particular vision of his own. Landis is a gifted artist and could have made a living painting original works, he’s just never had much interest in doing his own thing. Where Landis’ forgeries wind up in the last half of this film is unexpected and priceless.
The Character Becomes The Art
Did I mention Mark Landis is an odd, odd man? Good, ’cause he is. But that’s sort of the fun with Art and Craft. Complex and flawed, Landis is the sort of character that writers want in their stories…especially if they don’t actually have to write him. Art and Craft has the patience to present its lead warts and all. Watching Landis try to explain why he paints forgeries or why he smokes cigarettes is quite a lot of fun. You get the feeling he really has no idea why he does anything.
Art and Craft is not all belly laughs, though. Long in treatment for his mental illness, Landis struggles mightily from day to day. His ups and downs throughout the film are fascinating and difficult to watch, but that vulnerability makes him relatable even in his eccentricities. A true character study, Art and Craft extends this troubled character the courtesy of passing no judgement. Besides, it’s kind of fun to know that this odd little man duped some of the foremost figures in art in spite of all of his problems. Letting the viewer in on the joke is where Art and Craft is most successful.
Artists Capture an Artist
Art and Craft was confidently co-directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman. Both filmmakers have a worked in documentary before and that experience shows with this film. They could not have chosen a better subject in Mark Landis. Often, artists come off stiff and unrelateable on screen, but Landis is not your typical artist. He’s a con man, therefore he’s a performer. With Cullman working the camera himself, the filmmakers often shoot Landis in close-up and take their time watching him work. Paying close attention to his process, little things (like Landis’ need to always have the TV on as he works) are never overlooked and watching Landis’ forgeries come together becomes a riveting experience. With various subplots and side characters, the moving parts to Art and Craft are focused through the eyes of Editor Mark Becker who finds perfect balance in the complicated pieces of the story. Becker plays things loose and leaves Art and Craft with a light, jazzy feel that perfectly complements Mark Landis’ weird little journey.
I’m not a huge fan of documentaries, but Art and Craft never really feels like one. Expertly constructed, giddily odd and always entertaining, Art and Craft is well worth that $0.99 this week. And if your feeling saucy, iTunes has added a full section of other intriguing documentaries to their slate this week for the same low price…that’s $0.99 if you haven’t been paying attention.