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Optical Infusion

filmArt, technology meet in audacious 'Tim's Vermeer'

It's not the sort of declaration you hear every day. "I want to paint a Vermeer," announces self-described technology geek Tim Jenison. "And I'm not a painter." Why would a seemingly ordinary person who is not an artist even conceive of such a crazy goal, much less pursue it? You might find the answer surprising—or possibly infuriating—but absolutely fascinating in Tim's Vermeer, the new documentary by magicians and Renaissance men Penn and Teller. It's an eye-opening meditation on art, science, and the nature of the creative process.

Directed by Teller, the film is written and narrated by Penn Jilette, who also appears onscreen, conducting interviews and making observations. Penn introduces his longtime friend, Tim, an engineer and inventor of cutting-edge video technology from San Antonio, Texas, who is obsessed with Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch artist famed for his luminous portraits and gorgeously detailed interiors of daily life. Tim isn't simply an art lover, he has a theory to prove: maybe Vermeer was, like Tim himself, "a geek who used technology."

Where would Tim get such an idea? For one thing, from British artist David Hockney's book, "Secret Knowledge," which posits that medieval artists might have used optical machines, like camera obscura, to help them replicate realistic images. Tim is also influenced by architect Philip Steadman's book, "Vermeer's Camera," which studies six Vermeer paintings in terms of light and optics. Noting that when a Vermeer painting is X-rayed, there are no sketch lines underneath—as if he composed directly onto the surface—Tim sets out to build a mechanical device involving mirrors and optic lenses, by which he means to prove his theory by painting his own version of Vermeer's "The Music Lesson."

The Dutch master painted with light, says Tim, who compares Vermeer's paintings to video images, or color slides. Tim recreates the artist's north-facing studio with the exact same light, in a San Antonio warehouse, then stages the objects and figures from the painting inside. A hands-on kind of guy, Tim not only mixes his own paint pigments and grinds his own lenses, he reconstructs the tiles, moldings, and furniture from the painting (turning the legs of the Virginals, a period keyboard instrument, on his own lathe). He orders a 17th Century Viola de Gamba built in Italy, obtains a woven tapestry, even recreates the leaded glass windows from Vermeer's studio, and constructs a wooden mock-up of the scenery and skyline outside of it. Then he sets to work.

Somehow, it's all done with mirrors, or at least a series of mirror images reflected in various lenses and projected through a small lens about the size of a monocle clamped fast at a certain angle above the canvas. What's involved is upward of 120 days of painstaking, often monotonous application of tiny smudges of color in exactly the right place by a man who has never used a paint brush before. The results are startling, debunking "the modern idea that art and technology must never meet." Or, as Penn asks, "Is Tim an artist or an inventor? The problem is, we have to make a distinction between the two."

Even though director Teller scrupulously shows us the view through the mirrored lens, where the painter need only match and apply exactly the right color at the edge of the lens to the canvas below to achieve his effects, it's hard to conceive how it works—even when it's happening right onscreen in front of us. It seems like a natural artist would be constantly fighting the urge to shape the line as he sees fit, impose his own compositional will on the image.

Does this suggest that only a non-instinctual artist—but a brilliant technician—could achieve the incredible effects realized by Vermeer, and Tim? And just because Tim manages to replicate a Vermeer so exactly, is it absolute proof that Vermeer himself used the same technique? What's more, are the stunning photo-realistic images of Vermeer any more or less "artistic" than the more impressionistic, interpretive work of others? These are just some of the questions that filter into our brains like sunlight through those ornately glazed windows in this engrossing, audacious film. 

TIM'S VERMEER ★★★1/2 (out of four) With Tim Jenison. A Penn and Teller Film. A Sony Classics release. (PG-13) 80 minutes.

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