Somewhat contrary to expectation, this is not a documentary about a master

The lonely Landis. Sam Cullman/Oscilloscope Laboratories

The lonely Landis. Sam Cullman/Oscilloscope Laboratories

Somewhat contrary to expectation, this is not a documentary about a master art forger. Exposed as a fraud in 2011 by Financial Times and The New York Times, meek, mentally ill Mississippian Mark Landis didn’t try to sell fake works by big names to prestigious galleries or gullible collectors. That sort of criminal enterprise would make for a Hollywood thriller or documentary expose. Instead, filmmakers Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman simply gain access and trust with their shy, eccentric subject—now clearly pleased to be a demi-celeb—and follow his recent activities. They watch as he gathers art supplies at Hobby Lobby, sometimes photocopies his source images at Kinko’s (later to paint over them), dresses as a Catholic priest, and drives his dead mother’s red Cadillac to regional Southern colleges and museums to make donations. There, the cash-strapped curators and officials are only too happy to receive a gift horse and not look it in the mouth. (Whether they have the sophistication to look, Cullman and Grausman are too polite to say.)

Eventually, as was well reported at the time, Ohio museum official Matthew Leininger wised up to Landis and his 30-year pattern of ersatz philanthropy. Art and Craft tries to set up a kind of detective-and-quarry dynamic between the two, but this is a case of the bland pursuing the blind. Leininger can’t get real lawmen very interested (where’s the real crime, the real harm?), and Landis is a deluded old recluse, a frail mamma’s boy living in his late mother’s apartment. The museum curators interviewed here are all embarrassed about being duped, but they don’t want to see the sad, Gollum-like Landis go to jail. (Leininger is the one who ultimately suffers for his zeal, not his prey.)

Meanwhile, at the University of Cincinnati, curator Aaron Cowan decides to put together a show on Landis and his fakery. He does the best job here of questioning the serial copyist, whose young imagination was formed by TV, movies, art history books, and museum visits with his globetrotting military family. As opposed to famous outsider artists like Henry Darger (profiled in 2004’s In the Realms of the Unreal), he’s a savant whose gift is entirely imitative. (At the concluding museum show, there’s precisely one artist-signed drawing—based on a photograph of his beloved mother, Landis admits.) Like its subject, who never claims to be an original talent, Art and Craft is modest yet engrossing affair. Here is a guy on a harmless ego trip who craves a little public recognition. Getting busted for his small deceptions is the best thing that ever happened to him. Opens Fri., Oct. 31 at Varsity. Not rated. 89 minutes.

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