Critics' Pick

Art and Craft (NR)

Documentary 89 October 3, 2014
By Alan Scherstuhl
Knocking out the first-rate forgeries that fooled 60 American museums? That was a curiously mundane miracle, something for Mark Landis to do while watching TV. A frail and ascetic Mississippian who resembles Michael Stipe playing Truman Capote, Landis sketched and painted Currans, Averys, and Cassatts with one eye on last century's reruns. He flipped between a print of the original and his quick copy, committing to memory a line or brushstroke and then re-creating it with all the thought a military barber gives to buzzing any individual head.

"In Sunday school, they always tell everybody to make use of your gifts," Landis says in the sympathetic yet gently unnerving doc Art and Craft. "And copying pictures is my gift."

That sense of godly duty colors the next phase of Landis's troublemaking. This recluse would pack up his handiwork and con regional museums with the story that a dead sister or mother had bequeathed them these forgotten sketches and paintings. He called this "philanthropy"; sometimes he dressed as a priest. Landis wasn't asking for money, and he had forged receipts from auction houses, so the museums overlooked that other institutions already counted these same pieces as part of their collections.

Was this a crime? A prank? Gently deluded kindness? Landis's explanation: "I went on philanthropic trips in Mother's car." Art and Craft lets museum registrars sputter about getting duped (one insists Landis should be in jail). But mostly the film steeps us in Landis's existence. He paints. He watches TV. He measures time by how many years it's been since his mother passed. The film's a fascinating portrait of loneliness, of the mind, of talent undirected toward purpose.
Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker Oscilloscope Pictures