TELLURIDE, Colo. – I must say I’m happy to see that the media is finding its way to Penn and Teller’s “Tim’s Vermeer” here at the fest. I caught the film on a whim Friday morning and haven’t found the right time and head space to write it up, but it might just be — still — my favorite entry of the 40th annual Telluride Film Festival.
The film tells the story of engineer, inventor and self-professed geek Tim Jenison, who upon reading about the Hockney-Falco Thesis in David Hockney’s landmark book “Secret Knowledge,” set out to recreate one of Johannes Vermeer’s classic paintings with the use of optical aids. Not only that, but Jenison rebuilt, to painstaking specifications, Vermeer’s studio and the layout of the painting in question (“Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman”).
Enter magician Penn Jillette, a friend of Jenison’s who happened to discover this upcoming experiment in conversation one day. “I told him to not make a move until we got a crew together and shot this,” Jillette said in a post-screening Q&A Friday. “Tim believed this was going to be a couple of YouTube videos and I thought that it should be a movie in Telluride. And I was right!”
Jillette and his partner Raymond Teller set out to document the entire thing, which was a five-year ordeal. There were three motion picture cameras running at all times on Jenison as he finally put brush to canvas as well, as a number of still cameras and webcams. “Sometimes there were nine cameras,” Jenison said. “It felt like I was being watched.”
The result was two 50 terabyte hard drives packed with footage that editor Patrick Sheffield had to “excavate,” as Teller put it, in order to tell the story. “There is not one brush stroke on the painting that isn’t covered by at least two or three cameras,” Jillette said. “Every single touch of paint on the canvas is covered that much. So yes, for all of you people who are going to jump up Tim’s ass and say this was faked, we do have pretty good documentation and they are welcome to watch all of the cameras all the way through. You watch the 100 terabytes; we’re thrilled.”
The resulting film is, for much of its running time, mostly an awe-inspiring curiosity. But it ends up dipping into the profound. What is art if not the height of ingenuity? If Vermeer and certain contemporaries used methods asserted by the Hockney-Falco Thesis, is that “cheating?” Or is it as majestic a note on the human spirit as something born purely of imagination? And where is that line, really? As Jillette says in the film, bringing genius into tangible light makes the accomplishment more amazing than if it remained mysterious, because it humanizes it and affirms that spirit of ingenuity.
“If I’m right, and that’s still an ‘if,’ I think he was kind of a geek, kind of an experimenter,” Jenison said of Vermeer. “And I think he just wanted to get the best result possible. That was the goal of Dutch art at that time, to approach realism so that it looked like you were looking through a window. Art has not been that way before or sense.
“But maybe a better analogy to what they were trying to do is a modern motion picture, where we are using every skill and technology we can to get a realistic image on screen. It may be totally imaginary but we certainly have no qualms about using whatever technology available to get that great result. I think that was their mindset. I think he was just a very talented nerd.”
And Jenison has another theory that could, if this lot wanted to jump back into it, yield another film. At last night’s annual Sony Classics dinner held at La Marmotte restaurant, he told me he’s planning another experiment regarding Caravaggio’s work in what would be called “chiaroscuro.” Perhaps, then, we’ll one day see “Tim’s Caravaggio?”
For his trouble, Jenison received one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I’ve seen in my five years attending Telluride. And the film itself, which is set for release this year by Sony Pictures Classics, has quietly become one of the biggest hits of the festival, an instant success story that is sure to pick up more steam at Toronto next week. The film could even crack the Best Documentary Feature category come Oscar time, because it definitely elicits a response. It’s an unassuming work that says that, for all our faults, humanity can achieve wonders. Whether Vermeer used these techniques or not is really beside the point in the end. Invention and expression are one and the same.