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Penn & Teller doc 'Tim's Vermeer' offers controversial art theory

TORONTO - Illusionist Penn Jillette and personal computing pioneer Tim Jenison had been friends for roughly three decades when they decided to collaborate on the documentary "Tim's Vermeer" — and, remarkably, they still are.

Mind you, they were "really friends," the physically imposing Jillette notes with some insistence, not mere Hollywood acquaintances. The sort of friends who go on "adventures" together, who fly across the continent to share a meal together.

It was over one of those meals that the duo devised an idea that would significantly test that friendship. Jenison, a visionary video engineer with a flair for technological ingenuity, had concocted a theory regarding the way legendary 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer crafted his masterpieces. To test it out, he planned to conduct a simple experiment, perhaps write a paper or post a short video to YouTube.

"Penn said: 'That is a really, really stupid idea,'" Jenison recalled during the Toronto International Film Festival. "He said, this could be a real film."

Thus began an exhausting four-year journey captured in "Tim's Vermeer," which opens Friday in Toronto and Vancouver.

Directed by Jillette's silent stage partner Teller, the film is a testament to Jenison's careful craftsmanship and seemingly infinite patience.

Of course, he brought it on himself. He had harboured an obsessive curiosity about Vermeer, whose luminescent recreations of domestic life have long elicited both marvel and, in some cases, disbelief.

English painter David Hockney is among the art historians who have argued that Vermeer used a camera obscura to create these mesmerizing scenes, figuring that simply sitting down to paint his meticulously detailed tableaus would have been impossible.

Jenison took that idea further, theorizing that Vermeer did use a camera obscura but in conjunction with a simple mirror to exactly replicate the colours and composition of real-life scenes he had arranged in front of his canvas. To prove his theory, Jenison painstakingly recreated an exact replica of the room depicted in Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" and then set to painting his own version of a Vermeer.

What Jenison figured would take roughly year in fact took a total of 1,825 days.

"I probably wouldn't have taken it on had I known how much work it would be," he said with a gentle smile.

"It was really a full-time job," he added, before being queried on how that affected his actual job, as an executive with Texas-based software company NewTek.

"What actually happened was the less time that I spent at work, the better things were going there. So I learned a very valuable lesson, that I don't really have to be at work that much. That was a huge benefit."

Jenison had no prior experience as a painter. He says the only skill he possesses is his manual dexterity, but he maintains that almost anyone using his apparatus could create a beautiful painting. Likewise, he says he would be artistically useless without his apparatus.

The idea that Vermeer was beholden to technology isn't popular with some sectors of the art world, who greeted Hockney's 2001 book "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters" with scorn and outrage. Some equate what Jenison and Jillette are suggesting with, in effect, cheating.

And Jillette figures that having two of the industry's most prominent pranksters involved in the documentary might invite further skepticism.

"Our name on it doesn't help," he said in a separate interview. "I can't blame anyone for thinking that there could be something 'punked' going on. The fact that there isn't is probably more surprising than if there were."

Jenison and Jillette agree that even if there film's hypothesis is true — and both are near-certain that it is — Vermeer's legacy should in no way be tarnished.

The painter's gift, as far as Jenison is concerned, was in his "choice of subject and the feeling, the poses, the beautiful objects that he chose." Vermeer was, in the inventor's opinion, "just trying to make the most beautiful images of the most beautiful people in the most beautiful surroundings and make that look as realistic as possible."

And Jillette takes the argument further, insisting that if anything Vermeer's achievements should have new inspirational resonance.

"We're really busting the supernatural," Jillette said. "Those anti-human people who believe that the only way Vermeer could have worked is if he was able to do something that no one else in the world could ever do, and hold light values in his head and imagine sizes and shapes and algorithms that no one else ever could.

"That's supernatural. We're not willing to say that a man can fly of his own power. We want to see the Tony Stark suit that Vermeer put on. We're not saying he couldn't fly around — we're just saying he could build that suit."

"Lightning bolts coming from the sky," he added, "seem to be the biggest buzzkill possible."

Needless to say, Jillette seems almost excited for the backlash that he's expecting — though he insists he didn't intend to upset anyone with the film.

"I'm an outspoken atheist and I'm an outspoken skeptic and I'm an outspoken Libertarian. If I ever get joy specifically out of upsetting people, that desire has been sated," he said, laughing. "I've had religious people screaming three inches from my face, I've been punched in the face by religious women, I've been screamed at by chiropractors, I've had Democrats yell at me, Republicans yell at me, I've had people's mothers scream at me for turning their sons into atheists.

"It's going to be interesting to watch Tim go into the fray," he added.

Where Jillette is — by his own admission — cheerfully blustery, Jenison is circumspect and soft-spoken.

But it's his quiet determination that shines through in the entertaining doc.

Even as the hours stacked on the project and Jenison became nearly distraught by the magnitude of the task still ahead of him, Jillette never questioned his friend's resolve.

"Tim is — this is an understatement — much smarter than me," Jillette said. "Tim is also more careful. Tim is more measured. I go off half-cocked. I say things that are wrong pretty often. Tim doesn't. Tim weighs his words carefully. Tim gets his ducks in a row.

"Tim will tell you he was worried about not being able to accomplish it," he added. "I had none of those anxieties at all. The second he told me in the restaurant what he planned to do ... I knew he was going to be able to do it.

"He's someone that does not mess around. He is someone not to be messed with."

In fact, Jenison has another theory he's toying with, regarding the Italian painter Caravaggio. He believes Caravaggio was using a slightly different technique from Vermeer and he thinks he knows what it is.

He admits he may have to test that theory out. But it's not as though the Vermeer experiment left him eager to again brandish his brush.

"I'm not in the mood to paint anymore," he said with a sigh. "I'm sick of painting — after exactly one painting.

"It was just so much work."

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