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Tim'S Vermeer [ Edizione: Stati Uniti] [USA] [Blu-ray]
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Tim Jenison, a Texas based inventor, attempts to solve one of the greatest mysteries in all art: How did 17th century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer ("Girl with a Pearl Earring") manage to paint so photo-realistically -- 150 years before the invention of photography? The epic research project Jenison embarks on to test his theory is as extraordinary as what he discovers. Spanning eight years, Jenison's adventure takes him to Delft, Holland, where Vermeer painted his masterpieces, on a pilgrimage to the North coast of Yorkshire to meet artist David Hockney, and even to Buckingham Palace to see a Vermeer masterpiece in the collection of the Queen.
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This documentary was produced by the famous team of illusionists Penn and Teller. Some critics of the DVD have suggested that this is perhaps another hoax being perpetrated by the team. I don’t think that’s true. Nevertheless, instead of illuminating how a painter such as Vermeer could have produced his masterful results – this DVD still leaves me largely in the dark. Here are some of the questions and puzzlements I’m left with after watching the documentary and its bonus features.
1) After attentively viewing Tim’s laborious recreation of a Vermeer classic – I still don’t know what he was doing or how he did it! We only get a brief glimpse over his shoulder as he makes a trial run of his technique – as he reproduces with paint an old photograph of his father-in-law. He explains to Penn that he looks at the edge of the image projected in the little mirror that’s held at a 45-degree angle over his drawing paper – then he mixes paint right on his paper until it perfectly matches the color at the periphery of the mirror image. He works forward from there, matching colors as he goes. But I don’t get it. The mirror isn’t projecting any image directly onto his sheet. So how is he positioning his drawing? How is he controlling the contours and juxtapositions of the picture he’s replicating? I think the viewer needs much more time peering directly over his shoulder to get any idea of what he’s actually doing.
2) There’s something fishy about the beautiful painting of his father-in-law that he produces. We are shown the results half-way through the process. There are thick gobs of paint on his painting, as would be expected if he is mixing-and-matching shadings directly on his work paper (canvas). But then when he shows us the finished product – voila! His father-in-law’s painted version is as smooth as the original photograph. There are no signs of paint-layers and build-up; there are no palette-knife thicknesses as there were in the half-finished product. What happened to all that extra paint?
3) Tim doesn’t explain how his device is different from the classic camera lucida. In pictures, it looks the same and seems as if it would be performing the same preliminary functions as that small mirror apparatus that you clip onto the edge of your work desk.
4) If Tim’s method allows any untalented amateur to create a Vermeer-quality painting, why haven’t others jumped on his discovery and set to work? Why hasn’t his device become widely available in art supply stores?
5) How could Tim have had the skill to master all the trades necessary to recreate so perfectly the room which Vermeer represented in his original painting, and to recreate from scratch all the materials that would have been available to a 17th century artist working in Holland? This insistence on authenticity meant that Tim had to mix his own paints, using only formulae and ingredients used in the 17th century. He ground his own lenses for use in his camera obscura and in his other device. He crafted the furnishings seen in the painting he re-created, including their fine woodworked details. Even though Tim is an inventor, skilled in animation and animatronics – it seems almost superhuman for someone to master all the skills he exhibited in his project of time-travel, fashioning furniture and supplies available over 200 years ago.
6) Why didn’t Tim dispense with the camera obscura immediately? After working for quite some time, he realized he didn’t need the camera obscura, the image projected through a pin-hole with inserted lens on a wall in a dark room? This would have seemed obvious from the start, if all he was doing was blending paint at the edge of what he saw in a small mirror dangled over his desk?
Well, these and a number of other questions left blank spots in Tim’s painting for me. However, even if you feel you too might be frustrated by these lacuna left amidst so much laborious detail of demonstration – and even if you’re really not that interested in art – I still feel you might find this DVD worthwhile. It has more than a theory of art history to offer. As Teller says in one of the bonus features, this is at heart a film about friendship. It shows Tim and Penn deepening their already long-standing friendship as they work through to bring this project to completion. It is an example of male-bonding over something other than sports or cars or jackass escapades. That, in and of itself, is enough of a rarity to make this film a stand-out.
As to the question this film raises:
If Vermeer and others like him did in fact use optical “cheats” to create their paintings – does this make them something less than true artists? To provide guidance in answering that question, I suggest Robin Collingwood’s book, “The Principles of Art.”
I learned a bit about lenses from this documentary and the period in which Vermeer painted. It seems plausible he did in fact, paint from a mirrored image. What I loved about this movie was Tim, he designs TV equipment and is brilliant. He's funny, too, dmgood sense of humor and equally bright friends. Favorite scene he recreated Vermeer's room and his daughter posed for him...I won't spoil it...all I can say, great kid, she said nothing... but the scene is hilarious. This is a wonderful jewel of a documentary. I loved it, and even if you don't love art it's a fascinating flipping over of a giant rock of an art world mystery.
Tim was thinking of a youtube video showing the results of his efforts. Fortunately for us, he told his friend, Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller fame, about his project and suddenly it bloomed into a full-blown movie project, fully documented as an experiment which could stand the test of nay-saying scrutiny. It started with months of re-creating the room in Vermeer's "The Music Lesson", grinding his own paint pigments and even grinding the mirrors and lenses he'd use – now that was a stultifying job.
Along the way, they showed David Hockney what they were up to, as well as Philip Steadman, whose later book, Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, received as much disdain as was showered on Hockney. Other participants include Martin Mull (painter and entertainer) and Colin Blakemore (Oxford Professor specializing in vision & the brain).
Wait 'til you see the part about "the seahorse smile". Tim's understated joy as he holds a print of "The Music Lesson" up to his eye lengthways and sees the exact optical distortion that he sees in his own mirrors. It's a beautiful moment.
I really really enjoyed this show. They had me right from the beginning, when Jillette explains: "When you x-ray these intricate images [Vermeer's paintings] you don't find the usual artists' sketches underneath. It's as if Vermeer was some unfathomable genius who could just walk up to a canvas and magically paint with light."
As Tim says in Bonus Feature #2, "I got a real sense, I think, of what Vermeer must have gone through, if I'm right about this. It's really really hard. It does not make it easy to paint. It's not a short cut. It's not cheating. It's just a way to get towards perfection."
"Tim's Vermeer" originally aired in 2013. The show itself is 80 minutes. The Blu-Ray and DVD present the show in 1.78:1 aspect ratio and 5.1 Dolby Digital. The BluRay is 1080p High Definition. You can listen to it in English with Audio Descriptive Service. Also, subtitles are available in English, English SDH, Spanish, French, Korean, Thai, Chinese Traditional and Portuguese.
Subtitles are not available on the Special Features, but I hope that doesn't mean you miss these bonuses, because they added to my enjoyment:
....1. Commentary Track. Re-watch the show with commentary by Teller (director), Tim Jenison (the titular Tim), Penn Jillette (producer and narrator)and Farley Ziegler (producer). In the interest of making the show NOT "like watching paint dry", it was pared down from 2400 hours of film footage.
During the sequence where Philip Steadman visits Tim's San Antonio warehouse, Teller (he talks!) mentions: "[Steadman] and his wife told us stories about how brutal some of the people in the art community can be on this particular topic. They have a kind of religious fervor about Vermeer."
....2. "Toronto International Film Festival Q&A" (21 minutes) Moderated by Thom Powers, commentators on stage are Penn Jillette, Teller, Tim Jenison and Farley Ziegler. As Teller says, "This is a detective story. It's a 350 year-old detective story."
Teller got involved in the project because "This is a real event that may really affect art history. You don't often actually have the documentary cameras in there during one of these personal amazing discoveries, that has repercussions down the line."
....3. Deleted Scenes (16 minutes) These four scenes include an unused introduction starting with Jack the Ripper.
....4. Extended & Alternate Sequences (76 minutes) Two scenes in their original expanded form. One includes the sequence (left in the film) where Tim has just finished the very difficult virginal, and says, "I think the rug is going to be a piece of cake compared to the virginal." Boy, did that turn out to be a wrong!
....5. Theatrical Trailer. Tim says of Vermeer: "It's possible that he was more of a tinkerer, more of a geek. And in that way, I feel a kinship with him."
....6. Previews. These are commercial trailers for five other movies.
A very enjoyable show. Persistence and a Need to Know personified.