Friday, April 18, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Art and Craft

Mark Landis is not all bad. After all, he regularly shops at a great American retailer like Hobby Lobby. He just happens to be one of the most notorious art forgers of our day. However, he never made a dime off his impressive fakes. Instead, the high functioning schizophrenic indulged his “philanthropic” impulse, to the embarrassment of many of the nation’s most respected museums. Landis and his nemesis will take stock of his strange career in Sam Cullman & Jennifer Grausman’s Art and Craft (co-directed by Mark Becker), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Clearly, Landis has difficulty relating to people. Yet, we cannot automatically blame his mother and father, since the master forger describes them as gregariously social and indeed loving parents. Landis lived with his widowed mother for years, so he is understandably still struggling with her somewhat recent death. He has a unique coping mechanism. Even as a child, Landis always had a talent for the mechanics of art, but he lacked either the vision or the confidence to produce originals. However, regional museums throughout the country rolled out the red carpet for him, thanks to his facility for forgery.

It is still unclear whether Landis’s fraudulent donations were all for the sake of a massive ego boost or the misguided product of a compulsion to please. Regardless, shockingly few institutions did the sort of “due diligence” practiced by former museum registrar Matthew Leininger. Having discovered several of Landis’s “gifts” offered to his museum suspiciously listed in press releases and websites of other institutions, Leininger sounded the alarm bell in the museum world. Yet, Landis remained at liberty and continued his “giving,” because no money ever changed hands, relegating his activities to a persistently gray legal area. At an obvious cost to his career, Leininger became the Javert to Landis’s Valjean, dogging the former in the press and through his professional networks.

What happens when Landis and Leininger finally come face-to-face? It is a rather interesting moment. To the credit of the battery of directors, A&C is very understanding of human frailty and presents both pseudo-antagonists in a sympathetic light. In a sense, the two men represent polar extremes, with Leininger arguing for truth above all, while Landis points to the immediate gratification produced by his gifts. Most viewers will line-up somewhere in the middle, alongside the curator organizing a display of Landis’s work. Duping museums is obviously problematic, but we still recognize a good story when we hear one.

In fact, the entire film sounds great, thanks to a swinging soundtrack composed by Stephen Ulrich to evoke big band music of the 1930s and 1940s (particularly Artie Shaw, but you will also hear echoes of “The Mooche” in there), as well as the solo guitar work of Eddie Lang. Although it has the fullness of more modern recording technology (and takes occasional liberties with instrumentation), there is something wonderfully appropriate about Ulrich “forging” a vintage swing era sound.

At times, A&C raises questions about the nature of art and creativity, but Cullman, Grausman, and Becker never belabor the point, squarely maintaining their focus on the personalities involved. It will be fascinating to see how the film is received as it screens across the country, near museums that were taken in by Landis (many of whom remained in denial, even when confronted with Leininger’s evidence). Highly recommended for general audiences, Art and Craft screens tomorrow (4/19), Wednesday (4/23), and next Saturday (4/26) as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.