Tim’s Vermeer – Penn and Teller and a colourful hobby. (SFF Film review)

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Tim’s Vermeer is currently showing at the Sydney Film festival

You can grab your tickets here

Penn and Teller are a pair of rather unpleasant professional “skeptics” who have made careers out of, first being magicians and tricking everyone, and second making a television show that cites everyone who opposes their conservative, capitalist agenda as purveyors of “bullshit”. They have used this program, which includes light weight pop-science, to discredit contemporary ideas like environmental degradation, that damage is caused from second-hand smoke, or try to discredit yoga by claiming the people who practice are seeking spiritual enlightenment, not a healthy sport.  They claim to be “rationalists”, and come across as deep believers in the mystical “powers” of science to explain everything. In short, they are exactly the Bruno Latour nightmare he describes in his excellent essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concerm.” They are that post enlightenment pseudo-intellectual who thinks “science” is there to replace “god”. Crucial to this energetic display of attacking anyone who doesn’t conform to the C.F.I. agenda is a method of argument where they find very ordinary people with no professional ability to defend their opinions, and argue against them with prepared voice-overs they can’t hear (unfortunately for Penn Jillette he sounds exactly like Anthony Robbins) eventually mocking them and calling everything they say “bullshit”. No true intellectual would touch their program, so they have to rely on the testament of “Craig the Doctor” or “Joe the psychologist” (usually gleaned from the C.F.I.) to provide anecdotes to combat these people, usually of course relying on a willful misunderstanding of the motivations of the “victim” who is being “taken advantage of” by liars who tell them they will get sick from second-hand smoke. Their entire program relies on the very spurious notion that Penn and Teller are smarter than the people who oppose them. It will come as no surprise that the show has won five daytime Emmy’s after being nominated for eleven.

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This is the spirit in which they tackle the subject of “art” in Tim’s Vermeer. Propelled by a notion that everything that hasn’t been created by a scientist is somehow suspect, they decide to make a film of an art project created by their good friend Tim Jenison, a tinkerer who made good through inventing whizz-bang film special effects equipment and programs, who now has so much money, he spends his day on any project that takes his fancy, most of which are adult extensions of the boy building model airplanes in his bedroom. One of Jenison’s many obsessions is the skill and talent with which the great artist Johannes Vermeer, one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age, painted his incredible art works. Driven by the same sorts of motivations as Penn and Teller, Jenison has been pondering the technological “trick” Vermeer had to have used in order to paint the way he did. Without ever saying it, Jenison is obviously driven by a desire to debunk what he has decided is a myth about the painters “genius” and instead expose him as, still very clever, but more of a gadget man really. You know, like Jenison himself.

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The film is really interesting as Jenison decides to investigate Vermeer, though typical of Penn and Teller style, his fascinating research is kept painfully light on. Only two Vermeer experts are referenced at all, the great painter David Hockney and the architect Philip Steadman, both of whom actually came up with the ideas that Jenison builds on, that I won’t repeat here. because of spoilers. The moments with these two men are easily the highlights of the film. Through the use of a very clever invented gadget, Tim Jenison comes up with a painstakingly slow way of copying, that he wants to claim is how Vermerr did achieve the brilliant work that he did. He then goes about setting up a rather ludicrous vanity project of recreating the setting for “The Music Lesson” in order to show, basically that he can now paint as well as Vermeer. The film then moves into a tediously long, loving caress over Jenison as he builds this room, and then takes the very long time to sit and carefully re-paint “The Music Lesson.”

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There is no doubt that Jenison’s dedication to his project is admirable, but his end product is awful, proving nothing about Vermeer, except that he is a far superior painter to Jenison – which we already knew.  It is all summed up in the faces of David Hockney and Philip Steadman when the painting is revealed to them, and they stare with their mouths open. It looks like a paint-by-numbers horror story, or a Monet tea-towel, some wonderful work of art stripped of its passion and soul, and it is very funny watching Hockney and Steadman grapple for words as they stare at lifeless object. If Tim Jenison’s painstaking work tells them anything, it is that even with precisely the right tools, and exactly the same environment, he can never, ever repeat what Vermeer achieved. Fortunately, Jenison doesn’t have the talent or wit to see how terrible his Vermeer is, as he hangs it in pride of place in his bedroom. However, if Vermeer were here, he’d probably recommend Jenison not give up his day job.

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