Monday, September 29, 2014

Art and Craft (***1/2)

Directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman & Mark Becker


The new documentary Art and Craft delves deeper into the subjectivity of art appreciation than any other film I've seen in a good long while. What makes art, in all its forms, so fascinating to the human race are the relationships that we develop with a painting, or a rock n' roll song, or a movie. We connect to these pieces, the bonds forming are often stronger than most marriages; how we feel about art usually says a lot about how we feel about ourselves. Art and Craft, in simpler terms, is also a story of two men who love art, and showcase that love in completely different ways. Through these men, Art and Craft showcases the tenuous connections that we make to inanimate objects, our obsessions with things created by strangers. It also is a bitingly funny glimpse of a true eccentric, a uniquely fascinating man who brings new meaning to the term "art appreciation". The documentary has a terrific "stranger than fiction" feel to it, brought to life by the people in front of the camera. Frantically told and balanced in a disciplined way, Art and Craft is amongst the best documentaries of the year.

The film's unquestioned star is Mark Landis, a prolific art forger with a touch for the dramatic. Landis has an uncanny talent for drawing, and an even more impressive skill for copying. His photographic memory allows him to replicate an image almost instantaneously, to near perfection. It's a skill he's been perfecting since he was a small child - left alone in hotel rooms while his parents went to parties, Landis would sit in the room and copy pictures out of the art catalogues that his father collected. In his advanced age, Landis decided to become a "philanthropist", copying rare pieces of art with colored pencils, pasting them on to pieces of wood, scuffing them up to recreate ware and tear, and presenting them to galleries and museums as the real thing. Landis has duped dozens of mainstream places along the Southern United States, occasionally showcasing himself as a priest, often using the story that the pieces of art were left to him by a make-believe sister who passed away. Landis is bald with a cul-de-sac of hair and unkempt patches on his face; he's skinny in a sort of harrowing way and has a wandering gaze that never seems to command anyone's full attention. Sometimes he approaches these galleries dressed as a priest, sometimes just a normal fellow, but nearly always with a different name.

We learn that Landis is a paranoid schizophrenic who's required to make regular visits with therapists and case workers to discuss his feelings and behavior. He lives alone in his late mother's condo in Louisiana. He moved there after Katrina when his mother became very ill, and took care of her until her eventual death. The home is now a Grey Gardens-esque clutter field, with mementos piled in one area and medical papers stacked in another. Video tapes of classic films and old television programs litter his bedroom. He appears to have documentation of his complete family history inside. His only hobby seems to be recreating these art images and the production that goes into giving them to unsuspecting gallery owners. Landis' enterprise went untouched until he crossed paths with Matthew Leininger, the registrar for a Cincinnati art dealer. Landis got a view pieces past Leininger, but upon further investigation, Leininger realized that all of the art that Landis just gave him were, indeed, fakes. Enraged, Leininger then does his due diligence on Landis himself and discovers his cross-state dealings, flabbergasted at the size of Landis' scope, considering the frail stature of the man himself. Leininger takes it upon himself to be the man who'll take Mark Landis down.

Leininger becomes Art and Craft's second most prominent figure, obsessing over Landis the way some people obsessed over the Zodiac killer. His crazed fixation on stopping Landis is met with several shrugs and dead ends. Since Landis is not selling any of these paintings, nor is he making any other monetary profit, there is no actual part of his activities that are strictly illegal. But Leininger pushes on for years, even losing his job as registrar when his employer felt that his Landis obsession was beginning to take precedent over the current-day issues of his job. Leininger is a pure believer in the American system of law and order - he's following the rules, so why doesn't Landis? The fakes were so good that he could barely tell the difference, but the insidious knowledge of their inaccuracy is what boils inside of Leininger. And it's simply a difference of world views. Landis sees his work as philanthropic, providing organizations with free product that they want; while Leininger cannot fathom somebody trying to pass of a piece off art as something that it technically is not. This is the film's central conflict, the battling poles on which both Landis and Leininger stand, facing off to decide what it actually means to be art.

The film's directors - of which there are three - obviously have a bit more affection for Landis. The squirrely charlatan comes off as a squeaky-voiced innocent, a sufferer of mental illness who must have great bouts of melancholy that are not shown on the screen to justify all these doctors' questions, including "Do you have suicidal thoughts?". Landis' much talked about relationship with his mother, and subsequent depression after her death, gives Art and Craft a real human angle, an almost thesis for Landis' system of copy and paste. Leininger is often seen as a stubborn man, a jobless, stay-at-home dad who has actually trained his toddler-aged daughter how to recognize Mark Landis' photograph. The film crescendos with a gallery showing of Landis' artwork, side-by-side with the original pieces, where Leininger is able to come face-to-face with his nemesis. Their meeting has less pyrotechnics then you would expect, but what happens in that arena between the two men is so fascinating that I should not spoil it here. The debate at the center of Art and Craft is a fascinating one, and one that I guess I hadn't really pondered before seeing this film. Part biography, part criticism and theory, Art and Craft is a well told, crowd-pleasing documentary that should be seen by anyone who feels that connection to the art world.

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