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RUNNING TIME 89 minutes
• Audio Commetary
• Deleted Scenes
• Audio of Q&A with Mark Landis
• Faux Reel — Featurette
A riveting true detective story with no cops or killers.
Mark Landis, Matt Leininger, Aaron Cowan, San Cullman, Jennifer Grauman, Mark Becker
Art and Craft follows the story of Mark Landis, one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history. His impressive body of work spans thirty years, covering a wide range of painting styles and periods. Posing as a philanthropic donor, Landis has given away hundreds of works to institutions across the United States.
I have a documentary problem. I find it extraordinarily difficult to talk about documentaries as cinema. A lot of us talk about narrative film and television in much the same way — we’re obsessed with what happened, but not how it was presented and why. It’s why so many sites will recap episodes of television every week but won’t have much to say about them from a technical perspective.
I’ve made a conscious effort in my writing to talk about filmmaking, but I still have a hard time with documentaries. That may be because I grew up watching documentaries presented as journalism or education. Documentaries were things we watched on the news, or PBS, or maybe The Discovery Channel (back when it gave a damn). Cinema was something else entirely. Maybe I thought (naïvely) that documentaries were meant to be transparent; attempts to let the artifice of cinema fall away. I’m older now, and now I know that thinking is wrong. Art and Craft is a pretty great example of why and how narrative and documentary are inextricably linked, and it also happens to be really strong filmmaking.
Structurally, it’s not all that different from a serial killer two-hander. You have your killer — a seemingly mild-mannered but creepy individual who hides a dark secret. Then, you’ve got your obsessed cop, someone who risks their job and personal life because they’re so deep into the case that it’s spilled onto the walls and tables at home. This is the dynamic between serial art forger Mark Landis and ex-museum registrar Matt Leininger.
Landis is a diminutive, meek-voiced man. He speaks in TV-isms, quoting the old shows and movies he’s seen a million times on the tiny television in his apartment. He smokes to calm his nerves, but only because he’s seen it characters do it on television. He has a history of mental illness — a history he reads from the paperwork given to him from his time in a mental hospital. He lists “schizophrenic, paranoid, and psychotic disorders,” nodding slightly. “Oddities of thought, perception, speech and behavior… Oh, no, I don’t have that… I’m okay on that one,” he says, smiling.
Landis likes to fool museums into thinking he’s giving them original works of art, but he doesn’t earn a cent from them, and therefore has committed no crime. He’ll get a little buzzed on cheap brandy (he sips it from a bottle of milk of magnesia), stroll into some gallery or museum with a forgery and a false sob story about a dead sister, and he almost always gets away with it. But Matt Leininger is so incensed by and obsessed with Landis’ acts of “philanthropy” that his even his young daughter can identify Landis’ face from a photograph.
So there’s a strong backbone here; our subjects fall rather neatly into roles we know from narrative cinema. But the documentary never feels overly staged or the story too constructed. It never feels as if someone is standing just out of frame with the giant key that winds Mark Landis up. They just let him go, and he’s fascinating as hell. It also bears mentioning that the whole thing is shot beautifully, with the camera always finding interesting compositions. Tension pools in the film’s planned and unplanned silences, and we hang on Mark Landis’ every mumbled word.
Directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman and co-directed by Mark Becker (don’t ask me how they worked those credits out) and partially funded on Kickstarter, Art and Craft is a skillfully made film that reminds us of the necessity of story in documentary filmmaking. It’s a healthy reminder that good documentary filmmaking is good filmmaking, period.
Oscilloscope treats us well again with a great commentary, deleted scenes, and a few featurettes. The video quality is just fine for DVD, but I’d recommend seeing this one in HD. The 5.1 and stereo audio tracks are mostly great, but no audio mix could fix Mark Landis’ soft mumbling. Luckily, there are subtitles on the disc.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars