Tim's Vemeer

Film Review


Robleh Wais


This is an excellent film. Made by the famous skeptical duo of Penn and Teller, it delivers a new perspective on how the Dutch 17th century painter, Johannes Vermeer created his dazzling realistic oil paintings. Teller directed the film, Penn Jillette plays host and narrates. What interests me about this film is the multiple metaphysical issues it embodies. Penn, as the well-known skeptic doesn't directly address these issues as I will, but they are hinted at throughout the film.

Before we jump into the metaphysics let's review the film, its subject, Tim Jenison and some elements of cinematic structure. Tim Jenison is by his own description an inventor with a brilliant career in video graphic design mainly through computer graphics for television and movies. He has been creating what we would call special effects for several decades. The initial section of Tim's Vemeer, sketches out his illustrious achievements in this area and his early life story.It is succinctly narrated by Penn. Thus we see right away, this film will be a cross between documentary and narrative expository storytelling. Since the film is about Jenison's attempt to replicate Vermeer's The Music Lesson (TML), the film focuses on how he did it. Here it seems to be a bit of promotional plugging for Jenison, but that's excusable. Tim has a knack for creating just about anything he needs to accomplish whatever he desires. That piece of cinematic direction was a bit over the top. The choppy scene cuts depicting him building the original setting for TML utilizing 4 or 5 different craftsman disciplines, in which he claims to have no knowledge, well one begins to think Timmy is a technological Superman, huh?But as I said this is a minor distraction in the film.

What is eye opening is what Jenison has discovered. He realized that Vermeer must have used a technique called Camera Obscura, CO, which is Latin for Dark Room, along with a simple mirror, that reflects the CO image to be painted. A little explanation is needed. CO is a box or room with a hole containing a convex lens that lets light flow into its interior and is projected onto a wall in the box or room reversed at a 180 angle. The light carries the image of an object outside the device into the box, and the convex lens in the hole turns the image upside down. The convex lens preserves all the dimension of the original image. This is akin to what optical telescopes do with the light from distant stars. Convex lenses can sharpen or blur the images that pass through it depending on the focal length. This length is the distance from the object to the point that the light is focused and then reflected on the surface. But, what Jenison used was a concave lens that instead of focusing the light coming through it, it actually refracts the light to an image in the mirror. A concave lens has a focal length that will always create an image that is virtual (i.e. the image in the mirror, not the real object) and upright regardless of the focal length. This is what Jenison did with his mirror. With this process done the image in the CO can be traced to create a highly accurate drawing of the original object outside the device.


It's like painting by numbers, remember that thing in 1960s? It's more complex than this sounds. Since the concave mirror will replicate what is in the inverted image with a focal length from the source (concave lens itself) every color, texture and nuance is brought into sharp focus. He just has to match those features: color, texture, and detail. He just paints on paper in the area of the mirror what he sees. Here is where the film stresses that Tim Jenison is NO painter.He is just following what he sees in the mirror down to the smallest detail.He is kind of painting-by-the-numbers like those sets you could buy back in the 1960s. If there was ever a film that needed 3D projection this is one. I wanted to see exactly how this man, looking into a mirror and following what he sees in the mirror could paint on paper what he perceives. We watch as he recreates from a picture of his father-in-law a likeness that is photographic. The effect of his first painting is spell-binding.


And now we can consider the metaphysics. Is Tim Jenison a painter? The objection that art critics and aficionados will raise is already clear to most of us. An artist creates new images from his mind, he doesn't copy or mechanically replicate what he sees with a sophisticated method. An artist must have an afflatus, a creative spirit if you will. Software could do what Jenison did, right? I disagree. Tim Jenison had intentionality. He wanted to create a replica of one of Vermeer's most applauded works. Yes he used an intricate methodology to do it. Yet, at every step of the way, he was consciously striving to make this work. A piece of software could have done this with human help. But, would the software have been able to correct errors based on knowledge of what it was doing? Moreso, would a software program have even able to recognized it was error? It is clear that Jenison was not engaged in painting mechanically, but creating a painting in the way that Vermeer did. In this sense Jenison, though he denied it, IS a painter and an artist! Stated another way, what Jenison did is indistinguishable from what Vermeer did and thus both are artists. This is a profound statement believe it or not.To be an artist or in this case a painter you have to have the intentionality of creating a work of art. But, then we could make the charge that a smartly programmed computer could be an artist. No, that isn't true. A computer would create art from a pre-defined program without any intent.

The next big metaphysical question is this: If Jenison meticulously recreates TML through a method, hasn't he really just photographed it? Penn points out this fact in the film. This too is true. If the painting created would replicate what a camera by digital patterning would do, it is a photograph. A photographic painting to coin a phrase. To illustrate the point let's look at algebraic geometry. Say you have a circle P that is defined by being at every point d a distance r from its center O.This is the definition of a circle in algebra. Now take this circle and translate it by distance L from its center point O. Then recreate it. L with points d that differs by distance L from the original points d and r is r for circle P. Now isn't circle P identical to circle P but just different by the distance L? It is indistinguishable from the original circle P. This is just what Jenison did with his copy of TML. The more intriguing question would be are they the same thing? We won't dig that deep however. It brings up of the philosophic principle of the Law of Indiscernibles. A law the states that if two things can't be determined to be different, they are the same thing.

It was mesmerizing to watch Jenison create this work over of a period about 6 months. He consulted famous British artists and worked on it in a grueling regularity that made me want to try it. A film I expected to be bored by, inspired me. Take the time to see it!

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