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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Watching “Tim’s Vermeer”

I like magic, and I like Penn & Teller, the famed illusionists known for their prankish sense of humor and scientific skepticism. I still remember seeing the duo perform live as a child, and watching Teller swallow sewing needles and thread, then pull the thread from his mouth with all the needles threaded on it. As magic tricks go, that’s pretty unforgettable.

Penn & Teller always keep things interesting, which is why I was excited to see “Tim’s Vermeer,” a documentary directed by Teller and produced by Penn Jillette and Farley Ziegler. The subject isn’t magic, but art — more specifically, an art mystery. The film focuses on inventor Tim Jenison (a friend of Penn’s) and his effort to prove that 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used a system of lenses and mirrors — something similar to a camera obscura — to create his stunningly realistic domestic scenes.

Jenison wasn’t the first to suggest that Vermeer was aided by the technology of his time, and acknowledges his debt to British painter David Hockney, who explored the idea in his 2001 book “Secret Knowledge.” But for those who believe Vermeer was a genius with an uncommon gift for painting light, textures and other tiny details, the theory is radical and unwelcome, because it suggests the great painter might have been a bit of a cheat, tracing images reflected on a mirror. Or, if not a cheat, a tinkerer and inventor, rather than a true artist.

Because Jenison is a multimillionaire who can afford to indulge his obsessions, he sets out to recreate Vermeer’s painting “The Music Lesson.” He visits Holland. He builds a replica of the room Vermeer painted. He finds models to wear the clothing Vermeer’s models wore. He visits London and is permitted to view “The Music Lesson” in Buckingham Palace. He rigs up a room-size apparatus that projects the scene through a lens and onto a mirror on his desk, which enables him to paint it in painstaking detail — an arduous process that takes almost a year. And Tim is not a painter, as he’s quick to point out.

Tim is an affable presence, and it’s fun to follow him (and Penn & Teller) on his intellectual adventure. One of the most surprising things about “Tim’s Vermeer” is how seriously it takes art — the film wants to tweak the art world, but it’s also sober, level-headed and reverent. Tim seems genuinely moved after his London audience with “The Music Lesson,” and the filmmakers include commentary from Hockney and architecture professor Philip Steadman, author of the controversial book “Vermeer’s Camera” that makes the case for the painter’s genius, even if he was helped by optics. And it’s clear that even if Vermeer did use mirrors and lenses, there was nothing easy about his approach — it took a long time, and was physically taxing. At one point, Tim admits that if Penn & Teller weren’t making a film about his project, he would abandon it.

“Tim’s Vermeer” is a mischievous and contrarian take on the relationship between art and technology. The filmmakers think that these worlds are more intertwined than most art historians would have us believe, and that hard work and ingenuity are more important than natural gifts.

In a way, the film reminded me of the Orson Welles essay documentary “F for Fake,” which explores tricks and frauds and slight of hand — an art forger, a biography forger, Welles’ own “War of the World” hoax. I saw the film years ago, and my memory of it is a bit hazy, but I seem to recall Welles casting a somewhat skeptical eye on the art world, and raising the question of what makes an artist an artist. If nothing else, “Tim’s Vermeer” serves as a sly corrective to artist biopics such as “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” which starred Colin Firth as Vermeer, that depict artists as tortured, inspired and brilliant.

My main criticism of “Tim’s Vermeer” is that the filmmaking isn’t especially distinguished or noteworthy. There’s no real reason to watch it in a theater, as opposed to on TV, where it would make a fine PBS special or maybe a decent episode of Penn & Teller’s Showtime series “Bull----!”

But this is a minor complaint. Overall, the film is a fairly engrossing 80 minutes, and by the end you might be wondering whether you, too, could paint a Vermeer. The answer, I suspect, is no. But the fact that “Tim’s Vermeer” makes the query worth of consideration might go down in history as one of Penn & Teller’s greater feats.

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