Penn and Teller: The Illusionists Found a New Kind of Magic Behind the Camera
The Oscar shortlisted documentary "Tim's Vermeer" represents a change of pace for irreverent entertainers Penn & Teller, who are better known for their presence in front of the camera or on stage in their acclaimed live comedy and magic shows than for nonfiction forays into films about art history. But "Tim's Vermeer" reveals itself to actually be perfectly in line with the duo's legacy of using critical thinking to challenge popular misconceptions and commonly held beliefs in science and culture. Produced by the pair and directed by Teller in his feature debut, "Tim's Vermeer" puts a controversial theory about painting technique to the test, and in doing so wittily demands audiences reconsider how they think about art and talent and how the latter is determined.
Jenison is an affable, dedicated character whose process is painstaking and certainly not easy or by any means a shortcut, and through it Penn and Teller open up a discussion about the intersection of art and technology, and why some art historians resist the idea that great painters might have used devices like the camera obscura because it constitutes a form of "cheating." Is "The Music Lesson" any less of a masterpiece if it was painted with the help of lenses rather than right onto a blank canvas without any guidelines? "Tim's Vermeer" doesn't definitely answer the question of how Vermeer painted the works for which he's famous, but it deftly suggests that artistic genius needn't be so narrowly framed.
The influential British painter David Hockney formulated the theory that optical aids were used by the Old Masters to create greater realism and perspective in their works, one detailed in his 2001 book "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters." He appears in "Tim's Vermeer" in conversation with Jenison about his project, and says of the film that "Art History, like all histories, will be rewritten in the future. I think what Tim has done will be very useful."
Behind the Curtain:
Painting a Vermeer:
Our list of the best-reviewed documentaries now features over 30 different films. This week's additions: Films that follow the lives of performers and those fighting one of the most important legal battles of the century.
"Mr. Turner," "Wild" and "Winter Sleep" are among the latest additions.
A spirited look at the quest of an eccentric entrepreneur intent on uncovering the cryptic technique of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, "Tim's Vermeer" plays less like the sort of exposé of trickery one might expect of Penn & Teller and instead focuses on the nature of desiring answers to unsolvable mysteries.