Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" I may be a crook, but I’m not a savage. "
— [Owner], Deep Rising

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Straight To Hell Returns

Post-Repo Man cult favorite returns with improved special effects —John Adams (review...)

Alex Cox returns... Straight to Hell

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Mark Lanids makes — forgeries? Or shall we just say “copies”? — of lesser known works of master painters. The most egregious copies begin at Kinko’s, but all of them involve a skilled copier’s hand. Mark then dresses up, prepares his story, and donates these copies to museums, galleries, universities, and churches, as though they were the real deal.

The FBI has been invited to prosecute Mark, but because he doesn’t charge money for his copies — because he gives them away — they don’t really think any law has been broken. Their view is that it’s up to the museum to validate their own art.

Hot on the Trail

Mark gets down to work, TV on TCM in the background
Mark gets down to work, TV on TCM in the background

Why would someone do such a thing?

That’s certainly what the documentary’s antagonist, Matt Leininger, wants to know. When he worked in Cincinnati, Leininger was taken in by Landis. He figured out what had happened when he ran an Internet image search. “I found the same piece in 6 or 7 museums. I just became obsessed with it.” In fact, Leininger became so obsessed with it that he lost his job. He only mentions it obliquely, but her certainly seems to lay his fate at Landis’ feet. “Who’s that?” he asks his young daughter, pointing at a magazine article. Young Katie can recognize daddy’s nemesis on sight.

“He messed with the wrong registrar.”

Directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and director/editor Mark Becker are superb storytellers. For example, just after Leininger explains he’s been diagnosed with “OCD or ADHD” — whatever condition makes him obsess about things like Mark Landis, Art and Craft cuts to Landis himself saying “I was institutionalized when I was 17.”

Little Voice

Art and Craft is at its best when Mark Landis is on screen. He’s such a magnetic figure. In fact, I worry that the film (and the audience) are a little guilty of “freak show” voyeurism. The opening shot shows Mark, a gaunt figure (122 pounds), thin hair, protruding ears, walking hunched over and leading with his forehead into a Hobby Lobby store. When Mark speaks to the camera, it’s always open and direct. The voice is wispy and small.

Mark tells us that he uses colored pencil for many of his forgeries because “people can’t tell the difference.” As for aging the frames and the mounting boards, instant coffee makes a very convincing patina.

I think what makes Mark most convincing is his demeanor, shaped by his mental illness. It’s so easy to feel protective of this open, frail, man that you can’t imagine you might be the one who needs protecting.

It’s hard not to like Mark when we get to know him as well as we do. The film takes us shopping with him. We see what he buys at the store. We see his small, cluttered apartment (TV always on). We see how he lives, how he works (kneeling on the floor, using the bed as a table), and even where he hides the hooch.

Object Lesson in Documentary Filmmaking

If you want to study how to make a documentary, Art and Craft is an object lesson. This film offers an interesting protagonist and a sympathetic antagonist. There are revelations and surprises throughout the film. There are two big developments — one you can practically see coming, the other you probably won’t. When you do learn what might be coming, the film gains momentum as it builds toward that apex.

Perhaps the best lesson to learn is that you can’t always learn about someone by simply asking “Why?”. There is not always a rational explanation, even when there is an explanation. People are people. They do funny things. To them, those things seem normal, and to really understand, you will have to walk the proverbial mile in their shoes.

The next best thing is to watch a documentary as carefully crafted as Art and Craft.