Saturday, March 15, 2014

True/False 2014: But Is It Art?

Tim's Vermeer

Every year, several of the films at True/False are designated as "secret screenings." These are often films that are contracted to premiere at other film festivals or which are only conditionally finished. Regardless, one of the codicils of watching these screenings is that you don't talk about them in public afterward. In other words, they're embargoed. I tried to avoid the Secret Screenings this year because one of my motivations for attending True/False is to blog about it. Still, I did see at least one of them, and it's vexing. This film forms a natural double feature with Penn and Teller's film, Tim's Vermeer. The writer in me wants desperately to link the two films, because both of them take a look at what constitutes art. You can't always get what you want, as a couple of wise men once said, and I don't want to rock the boat.

Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" from Tim's VermeerTim's Vermeer (2013, directed by Teller) follows the five year process by which engineer Tim Jenison attempts to puzzle out how Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer was able to create paintings that look almost photographic. It has long been theorized that Vermeer used optics of some variety in his work. There are no under-drawings beneath the paint and there are optical clues in the paintings themselves that suggest this. Jenison is not an artist--he's up front about this--but his work in engineering for computer graphics gives him some insight into visual processes. He's also an inventor and he sets out to "invent" an optical apparatus consistent with the technology available to Vermeer that will enable him to reproduce Vermeer's results. Jenison's quest leads him to build a replica of Vermeer's studio, stocked with replica props from "The Music Lesson," a painting that's held by the Queen of England. Jenison makes his own lenses for what he presumes at first to be a camera obscura, but he soon stumbles onto a more efficient way of reproducing what he sees. Then comes the long and tedious process of actually painting his replica.

I imagine that there are a lot of people who, upon watching Tim's Vermeer will start to wonder about the nature of art and the nature of genius. What constitutes "art?" Is it purely a matter of mechanical reproduction? Is Vermeer less of a genius because he used mechanical aids to create his paintings? How do we differentiate between the technical skill of the artist and the technical facility of a machine? Does any of this matter? Vermeer left no notes, no drawings, and no letters, so we can only speculate about his methods. It's worth pointing out that if Vermeer used something like Jenison's methods, he was indulging in a long, tedious process. There is a lot of work in any given painting from the man--he averaged two paintings a year. Does commitment to the work invest art with "art?"

Given who the filmmakers are--Penn and Teller are famous not just as magicians, but as debunkers. I wonder if this is intended as a debunking of art. I mean, they don’t go so far as to call bullshit on Vermeer, as they might have in their showtime series of the same name, but I think the idea is there. Certainly, this takes some of the shape of that show. They invite experts and artists to look at Jenison’s results, though I don’t think any of them find it invalidating. Quite the contrary. My suspicions about Penn and Teller are probably groundless. I hope they are, anyway.

Penn Jillette and Tim Jenison in Tim's Vermeer

Speaking as someone who works as an artist, my reaction to all of this can be distilled down to, "Yeah, and your point?" Starting with the notion that Vermeer used optics: I think the filmmakers paint this as more controversial than it is. When I was taking art history classes in the 1980s, it was taken as a given that Vermeer used optics, and that he wasn’t the only one. (Part of Vermeer’s greatness is that even using these “tricks,” he created great paintings while some of his contemporary experimenters did not). Artists have long searched for tools to make their lives easier and to make their processes faster. And even if Vermeer is the 17th century equivalent of a photographer, does this invalidate his art? I have some photographer friends who might have some words about this. Commercial artists, of which I am one, are downright mercenary when it comes to this sort of thing. Norman Rockwell worked from photographs, after all. Like Vermeer, he set up his paintings with models in his studio, decked out with props, and photographed them. The great E.C. Comics cartoonist, Wally Wood, once said in a note to himself: "Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up." And Wood was an amazing cartoonist. Technical virtuosity for its own sake doesn't matter. Verisimilitude doesn't matter, either, or else the king of the artists would be the photographer (or the filmmaker, perhaps). Clearly, this isn't so. Process, does matter, but not in the way you may think it does. Process is the way the artist channels the world and synthesizes it with his own mind. If Vermeer's methods are technological, then that says something about both the way that he thought about the world. For that matter, process doesn't matter much with Vermeer, because his paintings are about more than process. Tim's Vermeer doesn't deal with aesthetics. It doesn't talk about composition or meaning (there are many coded symbols in Vermeer's canvases). It's ONLY interested in process, which misses something profound about Vermeer. But then, the film isn't really about Vermeer. Not really.

Tim Jenison in Tim's Vermeer

As a portrait of ingenuity and obsession, Tim's Vermeer works better. It's more a portrait of Jenison than anything else, and Jenison is a funny, engaging man. Watching Jenison's process illuminates a lot about the way the man thinks about the world. He thinks like an engineer. It should be noted that engineering and art have a long-standing entanglement. Many of the great artists of the Renaissance were engineers as well as artists. The engineering genius of artists like Brunelleschi, Bernini, and Michelangelo is littered all over Italy. Jenison's ambitions are more modest. He's not interested in creating art so much as he's interested in a technological question. In a lot of ways, this is a documentary less about art than about the way things work, and those kinds of documentaries always work on some rudimentary level. This is a slick, state of the art documentary, so it doesn’t fumble this element at all. The central personality of Tim Jenison himself roots the film in his own innate good humor. Jenison was on hand for the True/False screening and he's more or less the same when engaging with an audience. The film itself doesn't take many risks, but it trusts its b-roll. This isn't a film that's overly burdened with interviews and the ones it has are cleverly disguised as conversations. The core of the film is the event itself, Jenison's five year attempt to paint his own Vermeer, a process that has a powerful narrative hook. When, at the end, Jenison stands in front of his finished product--a painting that the film's experts suggest contains dramatic differences from Vermeer owing to Jenison's own obsession with the fine details--there's a feeling of triumph. This is a documentary made by showmen, after all. They do know how to provide a payoff.

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