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By Voice Film Critics
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For magicians Penn and Teller, art is work. In their act, these professional skeptics break down the process that makes stage magic appear supernatural. Such demystifying is also the main concern of Teller-directed Tim's Vermeer, a provocative documentary about technologist Tim Jenison's quest to understand and replicate the optical techniques that were likely used by Dutch Master painter Johannes Vermeer.
Jenison, an old friend of Penn Jillette's, devoted four years to re-creating Vermeer's The Music Lesson (1665), a work Jenison maintains that Vermeer painted with a photographic accuracy beyond what the naked eye could accomplish. The Voice talked with Teller about how Jenison's approach to art mirrors his own, why the mechanical aspect of art is so inspiring, and how the right music can make dots on a tapestry appear romantic.
Your film speculates that there is a disconnect in our distinction between art and technology. Why do you think that distinction persists?
I blame it on academia. Academics very often don't have to do the art that they write about. They also don't have to make a living from the art that they write or teach about. So I believe they've never gotten their feet wet, their hands dirty, and said, "OK, how would I go about making a painting that I would sell to support my family?" If you talk to real artists who actually produce things, they're not woofty. They don't view artists as supernatural beings who just walk up to a canvas and paint with light. They use whatever tools they can to achieve the effect, because the important idea is to get the idea that's in your heart to the heart of someone else.
Imagine if someone like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas decided they wouldn't use digital technology because that was not fair: "I will only use things that Cocteau used." Well, even Cocteau was cheating; Cocteau was running films backwards. So I really do blame this on the fact that academics don't have to make art.
You once said that we like making connections so much that we ignore the majority of times when making intelligible patterns is impossible.
We do look for easy and poetic connections between causes and effects. That's what magic is all about. Magic is all about connecting a cause with an effect that doesn't work in the real world, but that ought to work. All those first impulses.A key part of your act with Penn was that you were trying to encourage the audience's skepticism, to think critically. Do you think there was ever a risk for Tim that, in trying to understand Vermeer's technique, he was fostering connections that most of the time he'd just ignore?
Not with Tim. Tim really does live in the real world. That's the beauty of the way Tim thinks about things. He started off when he was in high school. Some art class he was attending displayed some Vermeers, and Tim said, "Those look like photographs." Even in high school he said this. He spent the largest portion of his career staring at imagery and developing an eye for the stuff until he could intuitively say, "That has photographic accuracy. That doesn't look like Rembrandt." In Rembrandt's paintings, you can see brushstrokes. In Vermeer's paintings, it looks like somebody devised a gorgeous, imaginative scene painted with complete accuracy.
So the idea that a human being would need a method to do that, that was something other than guessing how bright stuff was, was haunting to [Tim]. In a paint store, when you're trying to match the paint with your wall at home, you pick up a whole bunch of paint chips and you hold them up against your wall. And it's only when you're holding those chips up do you know if you have the right color. Tim had been thinking for a long time about how to do something comparable. He was sitting in his bathtub in Amsterdam when he got an image of a 45-degree angle mirror. Which is a great thing for me, because a 45-degree angle mirror is one of the fundamental tools of stage magic. When you look at a box on stage that appears to be empty, and then three women suddenly step out of it, chance are very good that they were using a device inside that box that was masked by 45-degree-angle mirrors. That really resonated with me. Tim found his way to that by eliminating a lot of other options.
Tim jokes about how provocative his project will be when he says that he hopes that it will ruffle some feathers in the art community. That's part and parcel with the way you and Penn usually try to demystify what appears to be a magician's supernatural abilities. But if your film is a provocation, it's because you're emphasizing the labor inherent in Tim's attempts to replicate Vermeer's innovations. Does that mechanical aspect of the art take precedence because of the aura that now surrounds Vermeer's art and the Delft school? Or could it just as easily have been about work of modern art with no widespread reputation whatsoever?