Art and Craft, the new documentary by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, introduces itself as a cat-and-mouse chase between noted art forger Mark Landis and former museum registrar Matt Leininger, but that premise is both misleading and damaging. Certainly the film could have been that, just as it could have been a quiet character study, but instead it is a jumble of scenes that does a disservice to its earnest subject—and the Catch Me If You Can knockoff score doesn’t help.
Directors: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker
Producers: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman
Cinematographer: Sam Cullman
Editor: Mark Becker
Music: Stephen Ulrich
Cast: Mark Landis, Matt Leininger
Premiere: April 17, 2014 – Tribeca Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 3, 2014
US Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures
Landis, an elderly man with a history of mental illness, is no doubt a fascinating person, but he is also a troubled person, and that instability that lends the film an uneasy edge. Throughout, Cullman and Grausman try to be fun in their storytelling, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Landis felt fun too. Any intended levity is dampened by Landis’s sincerity. He doesn’t quite understand that what he is doing—forging paintings and donating them to museums under the guise of a priest or the brother of a recently deceased collector—is wrong. He refers to himself alternately as a philanthropist and as a crook. He seems truly fearful that one day he’ll be banned from museums for his actions, but he also can’t bring himself to stop.
The directors couldn’t even find a curator to damn Landis. At best they seem amused and impressed, at worst they are insulted. Leininger, for heaven’s sake, lost his museum job for caring too much, and that firing doesn’t seem like a crazy notion. When we see the facts—here is a mentally ill man who forges and donates art for fun—it’s hard to feel anything but a bit sad. Landis is the only sympathetic character, but by the end of the film all I hope he gets is privacy.
The supposed climax of the film occurs at the gallery show of Landis’s work. But are the organizors celebrating his uncanny skill or trying to publicly shame him? Neither the curators nor
the filmmakers seem able to reach a conclusion. And while uncertainty is a glorious place where documentaries often live, here it feels like evidence of irrelevance. Not to mention the moment when Landis and Leininger meet: They shake hands and say some sly things to each other and...that’s about it. Oh, Leininger asks Landis to stop and Landis says sure.
It was hard not to think of Bill Cunningham New York while watching Art and Craft. But while that fantastic documentary follows the odd New York Times street fashion photographer with patience and a clear lack of expectations, Cullman and Grausman seem reluctant to let Landis do the talking. The result is a film that feels obtrusive and not entirely consensual. I don’t doubt that Landis agreed to participate in the film, just like I don’t doubt that he agreed to be the subject of a few articles and exhibitions. I could not shake the feeling, however, that to really respect him would be to leave him alone. That the filmmakers try to paint the story as a fun little jaunt in the art world does a disservice to Landis’s character, and to the documentary form.