For decades now, Penn & Teller have made a living pricking the balloon of illusion, showing the skill and sheer tenacity behind magical performances that’s as compelling as any level of deceipt or subterfuge. What makes their shtick so engaging is that they go out of their way to show you how the trick was done, and then still manage to awaken within you that sense of wonder you first got when as a child you saw some hack do the ball-and-cup trick at a birthday party. For P&T, science and craftsmanship are the true spirit of magic, and they don’t need to rely upon notions of the supernatural or superhuman in order to sway an audience with the power of their performance.
It’s all the more impressive, then, that Teller’s documentary Tim’s Vermeer may in fact be the definitive work from these two. For outside their usual magic idiom, we have in this wonderful film the core of what makes their contribution so special – we rip away the veils of prejudice and expectation, and are left with something that at first seems like a mere “trick”, but is quite simply a feat of great imagination and scientific thinking.
Quite simply, it’s a true magic, a human magic, the magic of science and technology rather than the hokum of belief and dogma.
The film follows Tim Jenison, an eccentric bearded man who’s the first to admit that he’s quite simply not a painter, at least in the sense of one who has spent years developing a craft. Jenison’s background is in computer graphics, and his fascination with the radiant works of Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer leads him on a quest to replicate the methods that artists of this caliber may have used to facilitate their paintings. Going against the orthodoxy of art history (and inspired in part by the likes of internationally renowned artist David Hockney), Tim’s quest is a mixture of inspiration and the folly granted by access to seemingly unlimited financial and temporal resources.
Done poorly, this film could easily be as dull as watching paint dry, but with impeccable editing and construction of the narrative, Teller proves once again that behind that taciturn, smiling face is a mind of enormous intellect. Staccato cuts and a wonderfully self-deprecating subject make the whole film a kind of joy, while the core demonstration is shot in a quite beautiful way. Even Penn’s droll interview proves to be effective at driving the narrative along.
As the film and the painting unfolds, you feel that same sense of astonishment and wonder, appreciating even more the great master who may well have used a similar technique. These are scientists seeking out lost techniques, and they’re constantly providing caveats for what they are uncovering. Still, it’s near impossible not to be swayed by the evidence, yet instead of undermining the genius of the likes of Vermeer, the film helps do quite the opposite.
The core of Penn and Teller’s project over the decades has been to knock down the artificial divide between the rational and the ethereal, dismissing the bifurcation of science and art. With Tim’s Vermeer, in a different idiom, they are able perhaps even more explicitly to knock down these artificial barriers, and in so doing the film simply leaves one in a state of educated wonder.