[28 April 2014]
It Beats Watching TV
Ann Richards seems a perfect subject for a documentary. The beloved Texan progressive wore her hair in a signature bouffant and power-lunch suits, and was well known for her remarkable comic timing. Her knack for bringing crowds to their feet recalled a long-ago era, especially when she embarked on stemwinders skewering the traditions that kept women and minorities in their place (and her state in the 19th century), while also pointing the way forward. As her old buddy Bill Clinton—who is about the only Democrat of recent years to have come close to her facility with humor and language—notes in All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, you can get a lot more people to listen to what you have to say if you’re funny.
Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper’s film—which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and premieres 28 April on HBO—charts her public service and power in deft strokes. A housewife and teacher from a small town, Richards and her husband were a couple of political junkies before she decided to turn a hobby into her life’s work. A few years as county commissioner led to Richards being elected Texas State Treasurer, the first women to win statewide office in decades. The film settles into a groove of one success after another, with Richards’ push to modernize the office and increase its diversity.
In 1988, the film reminds us, Richards’ keynote address at the Democratic National Convention made her a star outside of Texas. It was a brassy classic characterized by snappy takedowns of George H.W. Bush (“Poor George … he was born with a silver foot in his mouth”) and enunciations of a clear liberal alternative back before the Democratic party ran away from that word. Her successful campaign for the governorship comes complete with déjà vu, with her initially uphill fight made easier by a good ol’ boy opponent whose continual gaffes now seem to presage Rick Perry, who appears here briefly in a clip where he introduces the man who defeated Richards in 1994, George W. Bush.
The film’s narrative peaks then, with Richards’ loss, and from here it provides only the briefest of codas for the following two decades of her life. This structure, which is heavy on effusive gushings by old friends and coworkers and clips showcasing the ever-quotable Richards, doesn’t offer much more than an introduction to her biography. This leaves gaps on both the personal and professional fronts, with Richards’ divorce from her husband of some 30 years treated as an afterthought and little time spent showing what an outlier she was in statewide politics.
The film does provide previously unseen or little known footage and gives prominent place to the likes of Dallas journalist Wayne Slater, one of the best go-to guys for Texas politics (though it’s strange to have a film about this star of the Austin scene and not bring in fellow Texas liberal mafia members like Kinky Friedman or Jim Hightower for at least a drive-by quote). But as entertaining and heart-lifting as it can be, particularly in a time when true-blue progressives are so hard to come by, All About Ann is distractingly worshipful. The hagiographic gleam doesn’t do a lay-it-all-out-there woman like Richards any favors.
Art and Craft (2014)
If we might wonder about the authenticity of this film about Richards, another documentary at this year’s Tribeca Film festival, Art and Craft, makes authenticity its thematic focus. Already the subject of numerous news stories and magazine profiles, Mark Landis is a square peg in a round hole figure, the sort that raises questions about the “art world” every so often. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker’s film shows an appreciation for Landis’ oddities, not just personal but also professional. Landis is an art forger and a schizophrenic, but he doesn’t forge for money. He just likes to create fake pieces of art and give them away to museums and other institutions under false pretenses. As he puts it, “I went on philanthropic binges.”
The film spends a lot of time in Landis’ generically upscale apartment in a small Mississippi town apartment, following his rail-thin from as he navigates the tools of his trade and the detritus of his past, most prominently the pictures and trinkets of his late mother, who still occupies an outsized position in his mind (and the apartment). When not watching old movies—his worldview is primarily composed of childhood memories and media input—Landis carefully recreates paintings and drawings by well-known artists: pouring coffee over the back of a canvas does wonders for making it look old, he confides. For his “philanthropic binges,” Landis tends to pitch his work to smaller museums, generally in the South, posing as a man whose recently departed mother or sister just left him some valuable art that he’d like to donate. Occasionally he’ll dress up as a priest to make people at these institutions, already disinclined to look a gift horse in the mouth, even less skeptical.
Over the decades, Landis sneaked over 100 fakes into 46 museums in 20 states. Since this is something of a crime spree, the story requires a dedicated hunter. For Art and Craft, that guy is Matthew Leininger, an art registrar who becomes obsessed with tracking Landis down. The film pivots from the quiet and diffident Landis to the forthright Leininger, who reads as something of a cop to Landis’ criminal. If this were a noir, Leininger would have Landis in a chair under a naked light bulb, refusing to let him see a lawyer.
But Art and Craft is not a noir, and it makes clear that nobody seems quite sure what to do with Landis. Because he doesn’t make any money off his scams, there’s no impetus to prosecute him. As for why and how he actually does it, the film doesn’t have much of answers. Many of the numerous profiles already out there on Landis have speculated in depth on his motivation and methods, particularly noting his long bouts of serious mental illness. The film instead presents a portrait of a man whom many people believe has the talent to be an artist himself, but doesn’t have an “artistic temperament.” At one point, asked whether he might stop forging, Landis says haltingly that he doesn’t know what else he would do besides watch TV.
Jaunty and engaging, Art and Craft is an expertly crafted mystery about a crime that is right out there in the open for everybody to see. Landis’ motives are unknowable, but then the same could be said about art itself. It beats just watching TV.