Mark Landis’ story is such a perfect fit for an Errol Morris documentary, it’s strange that Morris’ name isn’t attached to it. Morris – America’s preeminent documentarian – specializes in finding people whose monomaniacal passions isolate them from the rest of society, and Landis, whose career as an art forger is depicted in “Art And Craft,” is one of the most eccentrically lonely criminals ever seen on film.
Of course, “criminal” is a tricky label to apply to Landis, a stoop-shouldered late-middle-aged man who, over the course of 20 years, has duped dozens of museums and other reputable institutions into accepting over a hundred of his forged paintings into their collections. Except that Landis has never asked for a penny for any of his impeccably phony masterpieces (aping artists as diverse as Picasso, Holbein, Charles Schultz, and Dr. Seuss), instead crafting elaborate cover stories (involving fictional deceased family members, pseudonyms, and, occasionally, a priest’s collar) in order to simply give them away.
As one FBI agent states in the film, “The art world’s a very strange place.” Art has value because people decide it does, and anyone like Landis who undermines both the perceived value of great works and the authority of those professionals whose job it is to authenticate them is going to make some enemies. In Landis’ case his mission creates a nemesis in the person of Matthew Leininger, a bluff, burly museum registrar who becomes obsessed with making every curator in the world aware of Landis’ career in deception.
Directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker construct their movie with admirable restraint and care, springing unexpected twists that take the viewer deeper and deeper into Landis’ sad, enigmatic story. Especially once Leininger’s Inspector Javert-esque hounding tips off a British journalist (along with museum directors across the land), and Landis’ mysteriously fragile little world is threatened with exposure. The antagonistic relationship between the driven Leininger and the mumbly, hermetic Landis gradually reveals each to have more parallels than it seems at first sight.
Landis lives in a cluttered little apartment overstuffed with the remnants of his dead mother’s possessions (it’s hinted that she died in Hurricane Katrina) and crafts his nearly flawless phonies with the same ritualistic motions with which he prepares endless frozen dinners and drives to a succession of barely-listening mental health caseworkers. Meanwhile, Leininger’s all-consuming campaign against Landis is gradually revealed to have had consequences of its own, his bravado manifesting itself in the increasingly desperate mantra that museums need to “do their due diligence,” even as we see how his life has been transformed by his need to spoil what Landis calls his “philanthropy.” The real reasons behind both Leininger and Landis’ obsessions remain suitably elusive – but, as seen in their eventual meeting (at a gallery show of Landis’ works), those obsessions have made them both outsiders. In the art world and elsewhere.
The fascinating, strangely moving “Art And Craft” screens, appropriately enough, at SPACE Gallery at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. Free for SPACE members and $8 for everyone else ($6 with student ID). Presumably all the art hanging at SPACE has been authenticated.
ALSO COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS:
STATE THEATRE, Portland
Friday: “Warren Miller’s No Turning Back.” In this, the 65th ski film from ski film maven Miller, there’s almost certain to be some skiing. I’m, like, 90 to 95 percent sure.
Beginning Tuesday: “Soul Of A Banquet.” Director Wayne Wang (“Dim Sum,” “Smoke”) brings us this sumptuous documentary about Cecilia Chiang, who’s credited with introducing authentic Chinese food to America through her San Francisco restaurant The Mandarin. (And, luckily, Frontier serves great food – you’re gonna be hungry afterward.)