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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The Imposter


The Imposter

An enigma in a grey hoodie.

(2012) Documentary (Indomina) Frederic Boudin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker, Nancy Fisher, Bryan Gibson, Bruce Perry, Phillip French, Codey Gibson, Adam O’Brian, Anna Ruben, Cathy Dresbach, Alan Teichman, Maria Jesus Hoyos, Ken Appledorn. Directed by Bart Layton

 

The darkness inside our souls is often simply incomprehensible to the rest of the world. “Why on earth would they do that?” is a question we find ourselves asking more often than not. Sometimes there really isn’t an answer to that question.

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished without a trace on his way home from playing basketball in the park. At first, the police in San Antonio (where he and his family lived) were not too excited – after all, Nicholas often ran away and had in fact had a row with his mom that morning. But he always came home the next day.

That didn’t happen this time and hours stretched into days into weeks into months and then into years. The cops had made an attempt to find him but after awhile gave up the search until only his mother Beverly Dollarhide and sister Carey Gibson and her husband Bryan were the only people really looking for him and even they were beginning to lose hope that they’d find him alive.

Then three years and four months after his disappearance the family gets an incredible call. Nicholas had been found in Linares, Spain. He’d been through an incredible ordeal of torture, sexual abuse and brain washing, suffering extreme punishment for speaking in his native English to the point that he now spoke with a French accent. His blue eyes had been dyed brown with acid. So traumatized is the young boy that he can scarcely remember any of his life before the kidnapping, which he attributed to rogue elements in the military.

He is welcomed home with open arms nonetheless. His sister flies to Spain to fetch him and upon hugging him, she recognizes his nose and other features. Gone is the outgoing, almost cocky young boy and in his place is a paranoid, terrified young man who while seeming nice enough is still showing signs of an enormous trauma. After an interview with the FBI, agent Nancy Fisher is determined to locate the people responsible for his ordeal and bring them to justice.

But not everyone is convinced. Private detective Charlie Fisher, hired by the television tabloid “Hard Copy” to gain an interview with the boy, becomes suspicious and compares the ears of this young man with the ears from a picture of Nicholas Barclay just before he was kidnapped. They don’t match. Also forensic psychologist Bruce Perry after examining Nicholas realizes that this isn’t the same boy.

In fact, he’s not even a boy – he’s 23 years old and he’s not American, he’s a Frenchman of Algerian descent. His name is Frederic Boudin and he is wanted by Interpol for impersonating younger teenagers in exchange for lodging and board in youth homes all over Europe. He has dreamed of being accepted into a loving family and living in America all his life and he soon realized that Nicholas Barclay was his ticket to his dreams. Which leads to several questions; why did the family accept someone who was so obviously not their son as Nicholas? Why would Boudin do something so heinous and foolish – he had to know he would be found out eventually, right? And if this wasn’t Nicholas, what happened to him?

All good questions and there aren’t any easy answers for any of them. Layton uses interviews (primarily with Boudin and Carey Gibson) to look into what happened. He also uses actors to re-create certain scenes that are crucial to the story. The results are taut and prone to causing shivers in even the strongest of viewers.

Boudin is a charming sort who is utterly amoral and borderline psychotic. He lies as easily as he smiles and trust me, he smiles a lot so much of what he says must be taken with a grain of salt. He only shows real emotion when talking about his upbringing with a grandfather who, disgusted with his black Algerian father, abuses the boy whom he thinks is unworthy of his name.

This is one of those movies that doesn’t end with all the answers right in front of you. If anything, you wind up with more questions than when you started. I kind of regret that the filmmakers entitled the film  the way they did – I think that Boudin’s deception might have had more impact if it was held back longer in the film. However, I understand why they did it – the movie, after all, isn’t strictly about Boudin and his caper but about Dollarhide and her family as well – and about young Nicholas Barclay. Who the imposter truly is in this film is left up to the audience to decide – and a tough decision it is, too.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy and sometimes downright scary. Boudin is compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: Can make audiences awfully uncomfortable.  Sometimes a little too slick.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a lot of f-bombs among other bad words. There is implied child abuse, sexual abuse and violence. The theme is definitely adult.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Layton has written and directed several documentary features for television. This is his first feature to be released theatrically.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100. The reviews are very, very good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Changeling

AMATEUR PSYCHOLOGY LOVERS: There is so much going on here you’ll spend hours discussing the psychology of the various participants with other audience members.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: White Irish Drinkers

Made in India


Made in India

Lisa Switzer peruses a travel guide as she prepares for an unforgettable journey to India.

(2010) Documentary (Self-Released) Lisa Switzer, Brian Switzer, Aasia Khan, Rudy Rupak. Directed by Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha

As medical technology advances, ethical and legal issues are beginning to arise as procedures begin to allow things that were previously impossible to occur. This is particularly true when it comes to human procreation.

Brian and Lisa Switzer have been trying to make a baby for years, but nothing worked. They had tried nearly everything possible to get Lisa pregnant but eventually it was discovered that Lisa had medical issues that had left her infertile. Having Lisa carry a baby to term was no longer an option.

The couple was basically left with two choices; adoption and surrogacy (Lisa has viable eggs – her ovaries are intact – but her uterus had to be surgically removed). Lisa was adamant; she wanted a baby of her own genetic make-up and Brian supported her in trying to make her dream happen. Yes,  Lisa is one determined Texan. However, finding a surrogate mother in the United States is prohibitively expensive – the entire process can run, depending on where you live, anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000, much of which has to do with the fees paid to the surrogate (usually in the neighborhood of $35,000) and legal fees.

Their options limited, they turned to medical tourism – the act of going out of the country for lower cost medical procedures – and the website Planet Hospital. From there they were hooked up with a clinic in India and a young mother named Aasia Khan. Aasia is a Muslim woman living in Mumbai with her husband and three children in abject poverty. Her sister-in-law had discovered that certain clinics paid Indian women what in India is a goodly amount of cash. Indian law requires that only married women are eligible to act as surrogates, so the unmarried sister-in-law was ineligible but Aasia certainly was. She knew her husband would object but the money was too tempting so she signed up for it.

She and Lisa were matched up and Lisa and Brian flew to India to have Lisa’s eggs harvested and Brian’s sperm collected. The egg was fertilized in the lab and implanted in Aasia. Per the clinic’s policy, neither parents nor surrogate were allowed to meet. The Switzers returned to San Antonio to wait while Aasia returned home to explain to her husband what was going on. He was understandably unhappy but asked his wife to limit her surrogacy career to this one baby.

However it turned out it wouldn’t be just one baby – Aasia was pregnant with twins. The Switzers were overjoyed, Lisa completely beside herself. They had mortgaged their house, sold everything and put every penny they could get their hands on into their dream and now it all appeared to be worth it.

As time went by, the Switzers received constant updates from Mumbai and Aasia was moved into an apartment that the clinic used for surrogate mothers where they could be monitored more thoroughly and the environment made cleaner and more conducive to a pregnant mother’s needs.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Nearly two months early, Aasia began to bleed and the doctors at the clinic determined that she needed to go to the hospital. Rather than transport her to the hospital the clinic had an agreement with, they sent her to the hospital nearest the apartment, one the clinic hadn’t worked with previously. An emergency Cesarean was performed.

Lisa was summoned hastily from Texas and went to the hospital to visit her babies in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. Except, as far as the hospital was concerned, they weren’t her babies – they belonged to the birth mother – and refused to issue a birth certificate listing Lisa and Brian as parents, without which the twins wouldn’t be U.S. citizens and thus the parents wouldn’t be able to bring them home to Texas.

The relationship between Lisa (who had travelled alone to India because Brian couldn’t get away from work) and the hospital became increasingly contentious. Heartbroken and frustrated, she turned to the U.S. Embassy for assistance in navigating what was an increasingly difficult and complex legal issue. In the meantime, Aasia discovered she wasn’t getting compensated what she thought she deserved and wanted to re-negotiate with the clinic and get something from the Switzers as well.

To their credit, the filmmakers took no sides on the issues, choosing to present the story as it unfolded and letting the viewers reach their own conclusions. An industry is arising out of surrogacy – it made $350 million two years ago and that number is expected to rise exponentially. The potential for abuse is rampant as countries all over the globe struggle – slowly – to enact legislation that creates guidelines and regulations for parents, medical professionals and surrogates to abide by.

Still, there are discrepancies. The contract the Switzers signed with Planet Hospital itemized that Aasia would be paid the equivalent of $7,000 while the contract she signed with the clinic only gave her about $2,000. What became of the difference is never fully explained (although Aasia was able to negotiate for a greater payment owing to her carrying of twins and medical issues that arose from it).

There are risks involved with surrogacy – and they are amply demonstrated here. Besides the medical and legal ramifications, there are also moral issues – when you think about it, the Switzers essentially were buying a baby. Yes, it was genetically theirs but once that line is crossed, where does it stop?

There are also those who would – and did – argue that the Switzers should have adopted. In their defense, even for parents with a stable household, the process of adoption is a costly and lengthy one and there are no guarantees even then that the Switzers would receive a baby in a reasonable length of time if at all.

Not being a woman, it is hard for me to comment on the urgency of Lisa Switzer’s mission to have a baby of her own. There is certainly a case to be made that she was acting out of selfishness; regardless of how you view her crusade, her determination has to be admired. She becomes the central character of the documentary, but Aasia’s bubbly personality, her quirky sense of humor and her quiet determination to make a better life for her family may stay with you more. I only wish we could have learned more about her, although I suspect the filmmakers were given a narrow bandwidth in which to work in terms of what could be discussed. I got the impression Aasia wanted a good deal of privacy.

This is an issue that is unfolding now, and the outcome has yet to be determined. This documentary presents the issues very logically and rationally without expressing any preferences to one viewpoint or the other. You are left therefore to make your own conclusions. For my viewpoint, it appears as if the business end of the surrogacy question is the one most being served and although I hope otherwise, the rights of the surrogates themselves will most likely take a backseat to the concerns of maximizing the profits for the business interests that become involved. In any case, there are no easy resolutions here and the filmmakers seem to respect the intelligence of their audience enough to not try to provide any. It is no wonder that this won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Florida Film Festival; it is a virtual textbook on how to make a documentary properly.

REASONS TO GO: Raises many thoughtful issues about the legal minefield that is surrogacy, particular in regards to low-cost surrogacy in emerging nations. Filmmakers admirably adopt no viewpoint but tell the story simply.

REASONS TO STAY: Aasia’s backstory could have used some beefing up.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is very adult, but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Switzers were referred to the filmmakers by Rudy Rupak of Planet Hospital. After leaving a message for the couple, the filmmakers were contacted within ten minutes by the Switzers and the agreement for the documentary team to film their journey was reached.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a DVD release is likely on the horizon, your best bet is to catch this at a local film festival.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Troll Hunter