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Film Review: "Art and Craft" 

Double vision

Over the course of 30 years, Mark Landis earned a reputation as one of the most prolific and notorious art forgers around. He produced painstaking re-creations of the paintings and sketches of artists from Monet to Charles Schultz for art institutions across the country -- more than 60 museums in 20 states.

But despite this rather unsavory hobby, Landis has never been charged with a crime. That's because he donated every one of the pieces. So while his actions aren't technically illegal, they're just, you know, totally uncool.

Landis is the focus of "Art and Craft," a new documentary from directors Jennifer Grausman, Sam Cullman, and Mark Becker.

Landis's activities were finally uncovered by Matthew Leininger, a former registrar of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Leininger decided to research his museum's Landis donation and discovered the same painting in several different museums across the country.

Though mostinstitutions that Landis duped show little interest in pursuing the matter, for Leininger it was the start of a four-year investigation. Now a stay-at-home dad, Leininger's obsessive pursuit appears to stem from a need for a hobby as much as any desire to see justice.

Landis, for his part, seems dimly aware of his adversary, though not overly concerned about what it might mean for him. But if Landis isn't in it for the money, what exactly does he get out of all this? That's the question at the heart of "Art and Craft."

Landis is an indelible screen presence with his hunched posture, loping gait, and mumbling speech; he's like a more loquacious version of Karl Childers from "Sling Blade." He's a lonely little man, living in isolation and harboring a fixation on his deceased mother. He's also a diagnosed schizophrenic.

It's easy to see what attracted the filmmakers to this unusual story. At first the film presents itself as a low-stakes cat-and-mouse art caper, and seems to be building to a "Catch Me If You Can" style confrontation between Landis and Leininger.

Though that plotline proves somewhat anticlimactic, "Art and Craft" is more compelling as a portrait of mental illness. It's also the second doc from the past year (following "Tim's Vermeer") to focus on men obsessed with duplicating great works of art. And as with that film, the directors use the art world as a lens to explore deeper issues.

To carry out his escapades, Landis uses techniques he's picked up from Hollywood films and television, frequently donning a disguise and presenting himself as a philanthropist executing the will of his late mother or sister. He claims to be honoring their final wishes that their treasured art pieces be donated to a worthy organization.

Landis clearly relishes the idea of being seen as an esteemed art collector, and given the respect which has eluded him most of his life. As he remarks, "it [has] seldom happened that people were nice to me."

Landis is able to mimic any style he chooses, demonstrating a remarkable artistic talent. The scenes where he demonstrates his techniques show a creativity and industriousness that put many "real" artists to shame.

Proving the point, the film culminates at the Cincinnati Museum of Art at an exhibition showcasing a collection of forgeries that Landis created throughout the years. The satisfaction he gets from seeing his work alongside acknowledged great artists is clearly a prime motivation for his behavior.

The filmmakers observe Landis with a bemused affection, refraining from judging him too harshly. Though he says that he understands that what he's doing isn't right, it's unclear whether he really comprehends why. There's fragility in Landis, and such a sense of loneliness that it's hard to hold his misdeeds against him.

At one point, Landis stops his personal guided tour of the Cincinnati museum to say that he doesn't need to look at the art, instead asking if there's anyone nice with which he might be able to have a conversation. It's a heartbreaking exchange, reflective of the film's depiction of the varied ways we seek to escape our isolation and feel appreciated, if only for a moment.


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