Tim’s Vermeer


Tim Jenison plays a little rock and roll viola.

Tim Jenison plays a little rock and roll viola.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney, Philip Steadman, Martin Mull, Colin Blakemore, Teller. Directed by Teller

The paintings of Johannes Vermeer are exercises in light and color, virtually photorealistic. They were painted at a time when photographs didn’t exist and artists painted their subjects by what they saw alone. In the intervening years, it has been a subject of considerable debate in the world of art as to how Vermeer did it.

Tim Jenison is not a painter. He’s a computer geek and a tinkerer, making his fortune as the CEO of a company that revolutionized both home and professional videography. His company, NewTek, has won Emmys for the Babylon 5 television show. He became intrigued by Vermeer after reading Philip Steadman’s book Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces which opined that Vermeer must have used a mechanical aid, specifically a Camera Obscura (essentially a box with a pinhole or lens through which an image is reflected against the back wall of the box upside down but with the color and perspective intact) in order to get his images. Artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters further fueled his fire on this.

Much of the controversy stems from x-rays of Vermeer’s paintings revealing that no tracing lines were drawn which is standard with most artists. As narrator Penn Jillette puts it, “it’s as if Vermeer were some unfathomable genius who could just walk up to a canvas and magically paint with light.”  In any case, Tim went from intrigued to obsessive. After coming up with a simple device utilizing a mirror (the inspiration for which came in the bathtub), he discovered that he could match precisely the colors of the images reflected in the camera obscura. He determines to paint a Vermeer of his own.

He uses for inspiration the painting The Music Lesson which hangs in Buckingham palace. In order to duplicate the painting, he built the room and furnishings from scratch in a San Antonio warehouse. He learned how to grind pigments into paint and even learned to read Dutch in order to facilitate the process. He wanted everything to be as exact as he could make it using technology available in Vermeer’s day. When the room was ready, he sat down to paint.

The results are remarkable. His friends Penn and Teller – who met him when they started using Video Toaster as consumers – document this remarkable undertaking. Jenison himself is affable and entertaining, self-deprecating but curious as a child. We catch Jenison’s sense of wonder when after being refused admittance to see the painting, he at last is granted a 30 minute window to view it with the proviso that no recording equipment come in with him. He is visibly moved by the experience and reports that the painting is much more detailed and awe-inspiring in person than any reproduction could make it.

Some critics have sniffed that the filmmakers are forcing a particular theory down the throats of the audience and present it as fact, but those critics were probably surfing the internet rather than watching the film. The movie is clearly presented as a possible explanation as to how Vermeer may have achieved his remarkable achievements in art. That the painter may have also been a tinkerer no less diminishes his achievements as an artist. It must be said that no optical devices were listed among Vermeer’s personal effects when the artist died, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible that he didn’t use any during his lifetime.

We will never know how Vermeer achieved his style of painting because he left no notes behind explaining his technique. No master of any art, from Vermeer’s day right up to the present, is going to reveal their secrets easily. What this movie is about isn’t really about how Vermeer did it. It’s about how Tim Jenison did it. It’s his story, not Vermeer’s. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you don’t want to think that an icon of painting may have used non-standard means to create his art. At the end of the day, what matters is not how Vermeer painted his paintings but the paintings themselves, which are quite literally snapshots of a world three centuries gone. There is nothing that Jenison does here that diminishes the accomplishments of Vermeer; instead, it brings even more of a sense of wonder about them at least in my case.

REASONS TO GO: Absolutely mind blowing.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too detail oriented to the easily bored.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jenison was not a trained artist at the time he undertook the “Vermeer Project” which he chronicled via blog. He was best known for co-inventing the Video Toaster software bundle as well as the LightWave 3D computer animated graphics program.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl With the Pearl Earring

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Divergent

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Fantasia 2000


Fantasia 2000

Fantasia 2000 is a whale of a movie

(1999) Animated Feature (Disney) Steve Martin, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Penn Jilette, Teller, Quincy Jones, Leopold Stokowsky, Itzhak Perlman, James Levine, Ralph Grierson, Kathleen Battle, Wayne Allwine (voice), Tony Anselmo (voice), Russi Taylor (voice). Directed by Various

 

One of Hollywood’s major curses is that it regularly seeks to improve upon a revered original. All of us can name at least one ill-advised remake, an update that litters the bowels of the septic tank of celluloid failure.

Wisely, the animators at Disney taking on the concept of Fantasia 2000 realized that they didn’t have to improve on the original so much as measure up to it. The original 1940 Fantasia is as highbrow as animation gets; it was (and is today) to standard animation features as going to an art museum is to attending a wrestling match. The same comparison can be made for the new opus.

Returning only the beloved “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from the original (the one wherein Mickey Mouse enchants a broomstick to carry his water for him), Fantasia 2000 adds eight new sequences ranging from the simplistic geometric animation of the opening “Beethoven’s Fifth” sequence to the intricate storytelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The animation here holds up well to the original. Check out the self-satisfied smirks on the pink flamingos in Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals,” which asks the age-old question “What would happen if you gave a pink flamingo a yo-yo?” (it is also the most charming and shortest of the sequences here). Check also the looks of parental concern on the whales in the gorgeous “Pines of Rome” (by Respighi) sequence. This particular part is breathtaking in its imagination, having majestic humpback whales float in the air as serenely as they plow through the water, but the world of these whales is not necessarily what it seems; the sequence’s end is a delightful lesson in perspective.

Another favorite sequence is set to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” done in the linear style of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. It depicts a depression-era New York City in which a construction worker dreams of being a jazz drummer, an unemployed man dreams of getting a job, a henpecked man dreams of being able to let the child in him go free and a little girl dreams of more attention from her parents. In this idealized Big Apple, dreams come true amid the glitter of the lights of Broadway.

Another sure-to-be fave is Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” (yes, the graduation theme for every high school ever) which stars Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant in loading up the Ark in preparation for the flood. Donald is separated from his beloved Daisy during the frenzied boarding; each believes the other left behind. While Donald puts out various fires in his capacity as assistant (the woodpeckers within are more dangerous than the storm without) Daisy pines at the railing of the mighty ark. They are reunited as the animals disembark in a particularly poignant moment. The movie closes with Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” which portrays an anime-style nymph battling a volcano-spawned firebird.

Each sequence is introduced by a celebrity host (Steve Martin, James Earl Jones and Penn and Teller are all particularly delightful). The animation here is superb; I was fortunate enough to see it in IMAX when it was first released to theaters and it made quite the impression on me. The re-mastered “Sorcerer’s Appearance” works seamlessly with the other sequences.

This is probably a bit too long-winded for smaller kids, which is true of the original “Fantasia.” As a work of art, it’s magnificent. As entertainment, it requires patience and imagination, something for which the American movie-going public is not noted. Still, for the smart gals and fellers reading this, it is without-question a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the most gorgeous animation you’re likely to see. Intelligent and delightful melding of classical music and animation fit for adults.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Children might find it tedious as it is a series of vignettes with almost no dialogue.

FAMILY MATTERS: Absolutely fit for family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Officially released just after midnight December 31, 1999 making it the first movie to be released in the new millennium.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The original Fantasia is included in both the original 2000 DVD release and the 2010 Blu-Ray release. There are also a couple of animated shorts from the 1950s related to musical composition. In addition on the Blu-Ray edition there is a piece on a projected collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney that never came to fruition, although about six minutes of footage exists (shown here, along with the nearly hour long featurette concerning the piece). The Blu-Ray also has a couple of features on the new Disney Family Museum in the old army Presidio in San Francisco (well worth visiting if you are ever in the area – Da Queen and I did just that earlier this year).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90.9M on an $80M production budget; like it’s predecessor, Fantasia 2000 failed to make back it’s production and marketing costs at the boxoffice.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Hugo