Art and Craft – A Deviously Entertaining Documentary with a Killer Soundtrack

by delarue

[republished from Lucid Culture, New York Music Daily’s sister blog, which frequently covers film, art and other events besides music]

The tagline for the film Art and Craft is “What’s it like to catch a fake?” The front page of the film’s promo site shows notorious art forger Mark Landis walking, dejectedly hunched, away from the camera, away from his late mother’s red Cadillac, a vehicle that’s part and parcel of the cover for his dubious activities. Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s delightfully devious, provocative documentary opens by following Landis as he dupes yet another one of the literally dozens of museum curators he’s been fooling for decades.

Landis operates in a grey area. The FBI elects not to prosecute, since he doesn’t sell his forgeries. Instead, he gives them away. His copies – mostly of more-or-less obscure works by regional American artists – are stashed away in the collections of dozens of museums across the country. Landis describes his work as “philanthropy,” although the gift of a fake Picasso is a gift horse at best – and puts the forger on the hot seat if the piece might be sold, or used as collateral. As becomes apparent early on, Landis is crazy – like a fox. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic and required to regularly check into his local mental health clinic – who, rather hilariously, don’t seem to have the foggiest idea of who he is – he seems content with being, as they say, “on the spectrum.”

The film is a clinic in “show, don’t tell” cinematography. Cullman and Grausman give the main participants plenty of screen time to explain themselves. Landis has a pity party going on, and it’s possible that he’s roped the filmmakers into his scheme (no spoilers here). As he explains, haltingly, he’s just a poor downtrodden weirdo whose only joy in life is the rush he gets when museum curators gush over him. To fortify himself on his expeditions, he carries jug wine in a milk of magnesia bottle: “I’m not going to drink this when I’m driving,” he sheepishly tells the camera. What everyone involved acknowledges, often grudgingly, is that Landis is a genuinely talented artist and illustrator. What’s hard to reconcile- and what everybody ends up asking him – is why he doesn’t simply do his own work. Landis weasels his way out of coming clean on that score.

His antagonist is Cincinnati curator Matthew Leininger, a tireless and rather tragic figure who ends up losing his job over his quest to put an end to Landis’ tricks – the art world seems to be united in their desire to avoid acknowledging that Landis, and others like him,  could ever puncture their airtight milieu. That might explain why the forger gets more time in the spotlight here than they do. Meanwhile, Leininger is relentless. In a stroke of incredible irony, the tug-of-war reaches an electrifying peak when Leininger becomes involved with curating the first-ever Mark Landis retrospective, probably the biggest single exhibition of fakes the art world has ever seen. Embattled but unbowed, Leininger makes for a very solitary hero. Meanwhile, the filmmakers give everybody else plenty of rope, sit back and watch the fun.

Stephen Ulrich‘s score is another reason to see the film: as purist noir theme and variations, it ranks with the best work of Bernard Herrmann, John Barry or Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch scores. It deserves a release as a stand-alone recording. It’s Lynchian in the purest sense of the word, a series of very simple, very poignant themes and variations that perfectly match the cat-and-mouse game as it unwinds. Ulrich – who leads cult favorite noir instrumental trio Big Lazy – plays guitar, backed by an ensemble of A-list downtown New York types including Mick Rossi on keys, Andrew Hall on bass, Dean Sharenow on drums, plus strings and brass. Peter Hess’ moody bass clarinet gets some of the juiciest, most noir moments as the group moves with a brooding meticulousness through jaunty if uneasy swing jazz, bittersweet pastorales, furtive highway tableaux and the occasional detour into the raw, reverbtoned horror that Ulrich has mined so effectively throughout a career as one of the most distinctive composers in film music. Ulrich never allows a sense of resolution, leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions, just as the filmmakers do with their narrative.

The film is currently held over in New York and Los Angeles and is screening nationally: the complete list of theatres is here.