To make a film about art forgery, especially a documentary, is almost dangerous cinematic territory, the shadow of Orson Welles’ F for Fake looms large over all. However, Art and Craft, from directors Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker and Sam Cullman, tethers its narrative of fakery not to the idea of artistic creation, which it weakly reaches for, but at a vastly more rewarding character study. Mark Landis, the forger the film centres on, is a meek and unassuming figure. Since his teenage years he has suffered from mental illness, and his childhood pastime of copying out drawings and images from art gallery programs his parents would bring home morphed into his lifelong hobby. What sets Landis apart from other forgers, and what makes him such a unique character, is that he doesn’t dupe collectors for money. Instead, he arrives at museums and galleries and donates the work, claiming that it is bequeathed to the muesum under his (non-existant) sister’s will. Landis’ forgery is as much of art as it is of self, sometimes he even disguises himself as a priest when he donates, his deceptive conduct not particularly malicious, though it did make him some enemies.
For the most part, the introduction of Matt Leininger as a foil for Landis works. Leininger discovered Landis’ forgeries in 2008 when, in his position as Registrar at the Oklahoma City Art Museum he noticed pixelation on a sketch under a magnifying glass. The documentarians track his obsession with Landis alongside Landis’ own life, their parallel narratives providing some amusement. When Leininger’s daughter is made to repeat “Mark Landis” as her father shows her pictures of the man and his work it’s a funny yet tragic scene – though placing the obsessiveness of Leininger next to Landis going to regular doctor appointments does tend to set up Leininger as more of a villain than a man doing his job with “due dilligence.”
The first hour of the film is significantly better than its final half-hour; for in the opening sections we learn much about Landis’ childhood and his approach to religion and family, humanising a man often relegated to a curio in news and print media. His devotion to television programs is an unexpected delight – he tells of how you can learn all you need to know about religion from the Father Brown television series – but this carries with it the lingering sense of social isolation.
As the film moves past the halfway point it creates a metatextual commentary on how Landis has been portrayed in the media to date. While the scene with Leininger watching a news report where he is painted a hero works in developing his character and motivations, a scene where a Financial Times reporter discusses his feature article on Landis, which segues into a look at how being “discovered” has impacted Landis’ art, is significantly less interesting. The coverage of the art show featuring Landis’ work in the final section of the film, despite being some form of logical end point, also underwhelms, the documentary floundering as it moves into the analytical.
One wonders what Errol Morris, circa Mr. Death, would have done with the same subject. Though some of the framing and cinematography is pleasant – a very amusing shot of identical apartments and houses that recurs throughout is one instance of the cinematography making as much a statement as the art itself – it doesn’t effectively use the artworks Landis creates until the gallery sequence.
Like the recent Tim’s Vermeer, Grausman, Becker and Cullman’s film is a mostly pleasant foray into artistic creation that works best as a window into the dreams and aspirations of its protagonist.