TIFF 2013 Review: TIM'S VERMEER Is Magical Art

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
For decades now, Penn & Teller have made a living pricking the balloon of illusion, showing the skill and sheer tenacity behind magical performances that's as compelling as any level of deceipt or subterfuge. What makes their shtick so engaging is that they go out of their way to show you how the trick was done, and then still manage to awaken within you that sense of wonder you first got when as a child you saw some hack do the ball-and-cup trick at a birthday party. For P&T, science and craftsmanship are the true spirit of magic, and they don't need to rely upon notions of the supernatural or superhuman in order to sway an audience with the power of their performance.

It's all the more impressive, then, that Teller's documentary Tim's Vermeer may in fact be the definitive work from these two. For outside their usual magic idiom, we have in this wonderful film the core of what makes their contribution so special - we rip away the veils of prejudice and expectation, and are left with something that at first seems like a mere "trick", but is quite simply a feat of great imagination and scientific thinking.

Quite simply, it's a true magic, a human magic, the magic of science and technology rather than the hokum of belief and dogma.

The film follows Tim Jenison, an eccentric bearded man who's the first to admit that he's quite simply not a painter, at least in the sense of one who has spent years developing a craft. Jenison's background is in computer graphics, and his fascination with the radiant works of Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer leads him on a quest to replicate the methods that artists of this caliber may have used to facilitate their paintings. Going against the orthodoxy of art history (and inspired in part by the likes of internationally renowned artist David Hockney), Tim's quest is a mixture of inspiration and the folly granted by access to seemingly unlimited financial and temporal resources.

Done poorly, this film could easily be as dull as watching paint dry, but with impeccable editing and construction of the narrative, Teller proves once again that behind that taciturn, smiling face is a mind of enormous intellect. Staccato cuts and a wonderfully self-deprecating subject make the whole film a kind of joy, while the core demonstration is shot in a quite beautiful way. Even Penn's droll interview proves to be effective at driving the narrative along.

As the film and the painting unfolds, you feel that same sense of astonishment and wonder, appreciating even more the great master who may well have used a similar technique. These are scientists seeking out lost techniques, and they're constantly providing caveats for what they are uncovering. Still, it's near impossible not to be swayed by the evidence, yet instead of undermining the genius of the likes of Vermeer, the film helps do quite the opposite.

The core of Penn and Teller's project over the decades has been to knock down the artificial divide between the rational and the ethereal, dismissing the bifurcation of science and art.  With Tim's Vermeer, in a different idiom, they are able perhaps even more explicitly to knock down these artificial barriers, and in so doing the film simply leaves one in a state of educated wonder.
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  • Lucas Hobbs

    I can't wait to see this, i absolutely love Vermeer. Seems like there's an interesting twist to this film too. For all of you that havent heard, there's a film showing on October 10th in cinemas everywhere about Vermeer's relationship with music. Another film that shouldnt be missed. Its called 'Exhibition On Screen: Vermeer and Music, The Art of Love and Leisure'. Ver meer thought of it excites me.

  • CoolestMovies

    I saw this at TIFF, as presumably did the Twitch reviewer, and was blown away. I've read David Hockney's book, referenced in the film, and long suspected he was right; Vermeer's work always seemed so much more photorealistic when compared with just about EVERYONE who was painting in his time, that he had to have had a secret weapon, so to speak, and to see that weapon veritably (and rather simply) built and put to use recreating The Music Lesson is absolutely revelatory in the way only the best documentaries are. I'm confident word-of-mouth will grow strong enough on this film that an Oscar nomination is likely. It may not break box-office records, but here's hoping it gets a good run in the big city rep houses. At the TIFF Q&A, Penn Jillette voiced his happiness that the film was that rare positive documentary experience in an arena often glutted with dark, politically-loaded, sensationalist fare. This is really good stuff. Looking forward to a Blu-ray with some serious bonus features, too. I also wouldn't be surprised if Tim Jennison marketed his device, as it truly is something ANYONE could use at home to create remarkable art without aptitude, only a bit of patience and a scientific approach. :)

  • Jane Jelley

    Have a look at my website www.printedlight.co.uk
    to see how Vermeer could have transferred images from a camera obscura. correcting the orientation of the projection, without the use of mirrors. This experiment, recently published in the journal ART AND PERCEPTION, shows how paint tracings could be 'printed' onto prepared canvases.
    The results have features which are strikingly similar to Vermeer's own work, show that he could have transferred effects of light from the lens onto the top layers of his painting, and meant he could have done most of his work facing his subject,

    Nothing can diminish the brilliance of Vermeer's painting, but it may be that innovative studio methods contributed to his extraordinary work.

    Jane Jelley Oxford UK

  • Charles Greever

    Fascinating paper, but I think it's only part of the story. The mirror that is being used here is to do photo realistic coloring/shading.

  • Jane Jelley

    You have to remember that Vermeer was working in stages, like all other painters of his time. He put down the underpainting first, which we know to be a tonal 'map' of his composition, then the dead layer (cheap earth colours) and then the working up and finishing layers. He would not have 'coloured in' all his picture at once. This is a very new idea which arose after the invention of the paint tube in 1841 gradually changed the way painters worked.
    Also it is dark inside the camera obscura, making working in colour impossible (unless there is a great deal of ambient light which reduces the power of the projection). I think it is more likely that a painter would have traced in monochrome inside the camera and then once he had transferred this to a canvas, he could carry on working in colour in the light of his studio, facing his subject.

    I have not been lucky enough to see Tim's Vermeer yet, as it is not on general release, so I do not know how he used his mirror. I will be fascinated to see.
    Jane

  • CoolestMovies

    Late with this reply, but as someone already note, Jane, you NEED to see the film. You'll see why your theory is incorrect, as are many others (especially the one that he was just that good all on his own!). As Jason Gorber noted before me, this film WILL trigger an important discussion that until now those who would maintain the status quo in the art world have sought to shout down, in part because many of their careers rely on perpetuating falsehoods they've come to believe. Not saying that's the case with you -- at leave you've TRIED to come up with an alternative. It's just that when you see TIM'S VERMEER, all doubt should be removed. There is one seemingly minor discovery that Jellison makes while looking at a print of the painting that, as far as I know, no other scholars have ever noted (perhaps only a scientist would?), and it's a discovery that all but proves Jennison has figured out Vermeer's secret. It's brilliant! The whole film is brilliant!

  • See the film, it's extraordinary. Also spoke to Tim and Teller at length about the work, expect a detailed interview about aesthetics and false dichotomy between art and science during the film's theatrical release.

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