Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s paintings have confounded art historians for generations. The level of detail he achieved seems unfathomable with a few controversial theorists suggesting that he used a camera obscura to paint virtual photographs. That’s the kind of clever conspiracy ripe for debunking that tends to appeal to the mischievous magicians Penn & Teller, so it’s both surprising and oddly appropriate that that the duo have made a documentary about the subject. More specifically, they’ve made it about their friend Tim Jenison, a computer graphics genius with the just the right combination of skills, time, resources, and eccentricity to prove the theory by painting his own Vermeer.
Jenison’s theory is that Vermeer combined a camera obscura lens with multiple mirrors to create a simple device that would allow him to perfectly and meticulously copy a reflected image in miniscule detail like pixels in a digital camera. He sets about creating Vermeer’s exact studio, paints, and tools using the materials that would have been available at the time. The only snag is that Tim has never painted before, but if his theory is correct Vermeer’s skill was based in optical science, not artistic technique. The film itself unfolds like a perfect Penn & Teller trick: exposing how the sausage is made, winking at the audience, and yet somehow emerging with something genuinely magical. It’s a funny, fascinating, and oddly poignant little movie that fits in perfectly with Penn & Teller’s storied career, even if it sounds like something completely out of their comfort zone. Although I suppose the element of surprise is a key component in any magician’s bag of tricks. (Phil Brown)
Thursday, September 5, 6:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Friday, September 6, 1:30pm, Scotiabank 2