Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

I'm not sure whether seeing Tim's Vermeer makes me more or less anxious to pull out the DVDs of Penn & Teller's Showtime series Bullshit! (and incidentally purchase the later seasons that aren't already in my collection) and work my way through. As much fun as debunking things is, one of the things I really love about this movie is that it's a very positive use of skepticism as a way to look at the world and find it even more amazing because one understands everything that goes into making it what it is. Though the result of debunking is almost always positive, there's something very pleasant about just how little negativity and snark this new movie contains.

One thing that I did find myself wondering as I considered and wrote about Tim's Vermeer is just how much the over-arching theme of Penn & Teller's careers - or, to put it another way, the basis of their brand - was planned and how much just evolved with their interests. In isolation, the various things they do are just brash and funny, but when you look at everything they do, from the stage show where a big part of the fun comes explicitly from the audience being in on the gag to their books to Bullshit! to Penn's outspoken atheism to this new movie, it's clear that all the really good stuff is about how knowledge is almost always more amazing and more fun than ignorance, no matter what the conventional attitude toward "ruining the mystery" may be. It's presented in a joking, irreverent manner, but it's so consistent and so integral that it simply has to be sincere and deeply important to them.

I've said this a few times before, but this resonates with me; not everybody sees the wonder in this view of the world, and I'm not always the best at explaining it in a positive way. Tim's Vermeer doesn't tackle big philosophical questions - heck, it even dances around the question of what Tim Jenison's demonstrations might mean for Vermeer's artistic legacy somewhat - but it's a great, upbeat demonstration of what you can see if you look at the world through this lens (so to speak).

I still wish the movie had been playing or doing a preview the weekend Penn & Teller were in town, though. Or, heck, even the week before; I might have braved the scrum in the theater lobby after their live show to talk to them about it if I had already seen it at the time.

Tim's Vermeer

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 February 2014 in Coolidge Corner Theartre #2 (first-run, DCP)

Even though the second half of the duo is the person who actually directed Tim's Vermeer, the first credit on the screen describes it as "a Penn & Teller film". That's appropriate, and not just because Penn Jillette frequently appears on screen and serves as the narrator. The pair's work as a team has always been about showing, in an entertaining manner, that understanding how something is done does not make it less impressive, but more so, and in Tim Jenison (and his quest to replicate the work and methods of Johannes Vermeer), they have found a fine example of this principle.

Jenison and Vermeer, on the surface, appear to be cut from quite different sports of cloth: While the later was an eighteenth-century oil painter known for his stunningly detailed and life-like work, Jenison is into electronics, most recently and notably a popular special effects and animation system. When he reads a book about how many of the old masters might have used camera obscura setups to aid in their work, though Vermeer's paintings cannot be entirely explained by that technology, he has a brainstorm on how it might have been done - and then sets out to prove this was possible by recreating one of Vermeer's most famous paintings, "The Music Lesson", using only the technology available in the Netherlands at the time... Even though he has never painted in his life.

Detail is one of the things Vermeer is known for, and the way Teller presents detailed information in his film is one of its great, if sometimes invisible, pleasures. Teller has a knack for anticipating questions the audience might have and addressing them preemptively, along with making sure to include details about what parts of the art world were secretive versus transparent, or how x-raying a Vermeer shows something different from contemporary artists. And while sometimes certain points and demonstrations will be repeated as new people are introduced to Tim's project, Teller avoids burdening the viewer with unnecessary detail. He can do this in part because what Jenison has come up with is a remarkably elegant theory and accompanying bit of equipment, but even when that's the case, "just enough" is a hard target to hit.

Full review at EFC

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