After over 30 years together primarily working as illusionists, Penn & Teller sure seem like they've made a documentary with the magic to place them in this year's Oscar race. Their very clever take on art and technology, "Tim's Vermeer," debuted to strong notices in Telluride and Toronto, and only continued to build buzz when it debuted at the New York Film Festival yesterday.
Edited down from a remarkable 2,400 hours of footage, "Vermeer" follows the epic quest of Penn & Teller's buddy Tim Jenison, an inventor based in San Antonio whose creations include the NewTek firm, the videotoaster, an airplane made entirely from elements that he bought at WalMart, and a lip-synching duck. Tim's latest project is attempting to prove a theory that 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer employed technology in painting his works.
How exactly? By meticulously recreating one of his works via building an exact replica of the room in Vermeer's painting and using optical devices to assist him in painting it. Penn & Teller (the former producing the film, the latter directing it) document every moment, and it's a pretty remarkable journey (it's also most definitely the best film ever about, well, in large part watching paint dry).
"[Tim] started telling me about what he was doing," Penn recalled of the film's genesis at the film's press conference yesterday (where Teller was characteristically quite quiet). "My mind was blown. I didn't know much about Vermeer. I told him 'just stop what your doing this has to be a movie.'"
Jenison himself was also in attendance, who emphasized that film and his project was in no way an attack on Vermeer or art in general.
"I'm not an art historian, I'm not an art critic and I'm not an art expert; I'm a computer guy who did a weird experiment," Jenison said.
That weird experiment led to a film that sparks a truly unique dialogue about the intersection of art and technology.
"I think technology is a word we have to divide properly," Penn explained. "Paint is technology. Brushes are technology. Canvas is technology. I don't think that any use of any technology diminishes art whatsoever. Art is not sports. Art is not the Olympics. It is okay if Jimi Hendrix used some drugs to write his records. It is okay if you use a projector. It's okay if you use anything. What matters is what's there. Once anyone has decided that one photograph ever taken is art, we've opened this up completely."
Technology is not just a theme in the movie, it's also very much part of the form.
"This movie could not have been made even 10 years ago," Penn said. "It would have been too expensive. And as we talk about Vermeer using technology, the actual movie itself is using technology. And I can't think off the top of my head -- though I'm sure there is -- of a film of an event like this that is so well-documented while it is happening. We were fortunate enough to have Tim be so monomaniacal on this, and also he's such a techie at the same time. The very odd thing about this movie is that in many cases the cinematographer is Tim himself. And in many, many cases the technician is Tim. So you've got this quality of the movie which is so personal and honest about Tim. And it's not only about Tim but Tim is also in a certain sense doing it."
"Tim's Vermeer" screens again on October 9th at NYFF, while Sony Classics is releasing it in early 2014 after a qualifying run that will give it a very good shot at a best documentary feature Oscar nod.