Johannes Vermeer was a 17th century Dutch painter with 35 known works to his credit, perhaps the best known among them “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” the inspiration of a 2003 movie of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson. These paintings, mostly of women and domestic scenes, have something in common: a photo-real usage of light and color. How did Vermeer achieve such artistic precision 150 years before photography was invented? That conundrum is the subject of another film, the fascinating documentary “Tim's Vermeer.”
The Tim of the title is Tim Jenison, a Texan inventor and digital art pioneer who became obsessed the idea that Vermeer used optic technology to create his masterpieces, and set out to prove the theory — controversially espoused in Philip Steadman’s 2001 book “Vermeer’s Camera" — by replicating Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.” Jenison, who had never painted before, was able to achieve startling results by duplicating the specifications of Vermeer’s art studio and everything in it, his pigments and tools, and the camera obscura and mirrors that Vermeer may have used.
How Jenison’s 10-year journey became a film is a saga in itself and has a pair of renowned magicians behind it, Penn & Teller, the former serving as producer, the latter as director. Teller, the silent half of the magic act, spoke about how it came together. “Penn and I have always been interested in technology and we’d known Tim for a really long time,” he began, explaining that Penn and Jenison had a lot of shared interests and had become particularly close over the years.
On a 2009 visit to Las Vegas, where the comedy duo are the longest-running headline act, Jenison showed Penn a video he’d made of the mirror technique, and Penn was immediately interested in turning into movie. Teller was all for it, “But as you could imagine, pitching this project would be a nightmare. This guy who you don’t know, who’s not an artist, is going to try to paint a Vermeer.”
That was only one of the challenges associated with it. “It was four years in the actual act of recording the making of the painting and then a year of editing” — 2,400 hours of footage! — says first-time film director Teller, for whom there was quite a bit of trial and error in finding a workable approach.
“My biggest challenge as a director was to look at this mass of undifferentiated experience and make it into a movie.” He tried having Penn tell the story from his point of view, then thought they might follow the theme of their Showtime series and show how mirrors were used by both Vermeer and Tim, but ultimately realized that it should focus on Tim himself, and changed the title — originally “Vermeer’s Edge” — accordingly.
The film raises provocative issues of art and science. Some critics call use of optical equipment cheating, others praise Vermeer for taking advantage of innovations available to him. Teller is in the latter camp. “Art and technology always go together. The consumer’s job is not to know how things work, but to enjoy the final result. The historian’s job is to talk about it. But what he did doesn’t in any way diminish what he achieved.”
Teller, who directed the documentary, gets in on the action. (Photo: Leslie Johnson/High Delft Pictures)
What's next for magic duo
Teller, who directed a stage production of “Macbeth” five years ago, next directs another Shakespeare play, “The Tempest,” for the Harvard ART company, opening in Las Vegas on April 5. “I always thought ‘The Tempest’ should have a carnival flavor to it so we’re doing it in a tent that will remind you of Coney Island,” he says.
This summer, the CW will premiere “Penn & Teller Fool Us,” in which magicians endeavor to trick the duo, and if successful, earn a spot in their live show at Las Vegas’ Rio, where they are in residence through 2017 at least. “As Penn likes to say, we expect to die in office,” Teller quips.
Hooked on magic ever since he saw Clarabell the Clown do tricks on “The Howdy Doody Show” when he was 5 and sent “50 cents and three Mars bars wrappers” for a magic kit, Teller has partnered with Penn since 1975, although in the first six years the act was a trio, with mutual friend Wier Chrisimer. He says the relationship works because they didn’t start as friends.
“We disagree artistically all the time and we never take it personally. It’s a professional working relationship, like two guys who decided to open a dry cleaning store. We share a work ethic, we share sobriety, we share a whole bunch of philosophical things but we don’t get upset if we don’t agree or if fight.”
As for staying silent on stage, it’s not difficult for the otherwise talkative Teller. “It’s really fun and such a strong statement. There’s a level of tension and intimacy that’s hard to beat. I also love the challenge of lying without speaking.” He’s thrilled that his first foray into filmmaking has been so well received, and is particularly pleased that “So far, everybody in the arts loves it. It tells their story.”
“Tim’s Vermeer” opens nationwide on Jan. 31.
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