Mark Landis puts the “artist” in con artist. For decades, this soft-spoken Mississippi introvert forged the work of everyone from Pablo Picasso to Charles Schulz, then donated his pieces as originals to numerous institutions all over the United States. That Landis never made a dime from any of these philanthropic giftings puts what he’s done in a legal and moral gray area. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker’s compelling but dubious documentary begins toward the end of Landis’s counterfeiting career, after he’s been outed in several magazine and newspaper profiles but is still occasionally bequeathing his forgeries under different aliases. The filmmakers appear to have acquired unlimited access to Landis, even accompanying him to some of his endowment meetings, and there’s often a sense that what we’re watching could have been staged, which deepens the queasy questions the movie raises.
For one, to what degree is Landis—a diagnosed schizophrenic on medication who regularly meets with a social worker—being exploited by the people filming him? He’s certainly one of those inherently fascinating oddballs whom directors like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris have built a cottage industry around. The best parts of the doc are when the camera just observes Landis in his own space, an apartment cluttered with stacks of art-world catalogs and journals, the television always tuned in to some old film or TV show (his version of white noise). But when he ventures out into the world (especially during the film’s climax in which he attends an exhibition built around his lifelong fabrications), he’s painted as more of a freak to gawk at—an off-kilter copy of a human being as opposed to truly, deeply human.
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