Did you know that Teller of Penn and Teller actually speaks? Not only does he speak but he speaks very well. Arriving at the Geffen Playhouse on yet another ridiculously perfect day in Westwood, California, I had no idea what to expect. “Hi, I’m Teller,” he said to me. He greeted me with warmth and a firm handshake. I was caught slightly off guard. Maybe I thought he would communicate with me in some other way than simply speaking to me. He noticed my shock and put me at ease immediately. He probably has to do this with some admirer at least once a day — A repetitive cycle, no doubt, as each person not in the know uncovers this fact about him: he speaks.
He sat next to me, leaning back on the plush sofa. But he really isn’t the kind of person who sits back and makes you, the interviewer, do all of the work. Not long after he sat down he leaned forward, even adjusting himself on the edge of the sofa – engaged, interested, with the kind of active mind that misses nothing. Don’t act like an idiot, I told myself, and you can converse with him, clearly one of the smartest people on the planet.
Teller’s new film, Tim’s Vermeer, is as difficult to explain as the title is to remember. When describing what it’s about, one must come at the subject from several different angles at once. Who’s Tim? That’s what most people want to know. And why is it called Tim’s Vermeer? After you see the film, of course, you don’t have to ask that question. But Tim, as it turns out, is Tim Jenison. An old friend of Penn and Tellers whose obsessive, scientifically inclined mind motivates him to drop into various rabbit holes of discovery and occasional madness. Jenison, a wealthy inventor, set out to uncover the Dutch painter’s technique. More to the point, how was Vermeer able to capture such detail in his work, such high resolution photo-realism that no other painter at the time had been able to? The direction and focus of the light on his subjects seemed to be just too exact.
Springboarding off David Hockney’s own theory that Vermeer used the camera obscura to paint, Tim goes about trying to do this. He planned to paint a Vermeer using that technique and see how close he could get to the master’s work. The results are astonishing. The approach to this, pure Teller, with lots of Penn thrown in (he narrates much of it and appears in it), is playful, melancholy, studious and brilliant.
Teller was talking a mile a minute about all sorts of interesting things. One of the difficult but potential deal breakers was getting to David Hockney. It took Tim about a year of trying to get to Hockney before they finally were able to break through. Once inside the Hockney lair, no cameras were allowed. But they eventually wore him down and shot Hockney on the fly – one of the treats of the film is getting such an up close and personal look at Hockney’s world. Teller, being an artist and magician at heart, was prepared to do whatever it took to make the film complete, even it meant splicing in footage taken with a tiny camera.
Though I did not ask him many of the questions his fans probably have for him, private questions about who he really is and what his life is like. You can find out much about him on Wikipedia — that he has a background in painting, for instance. The core of our conversation was about the debate between art and technology, or reality and magic.
“Do you want to view them as human beings or do you want to view them as magical creatures who can do things human beings can’t do,” he said. He then described how watching magic shows was even more mesmerizing for him since he knew how they worked. The awe comes not just from having been wowed by the trick but from an appreciation of what went into it. That, ultimately, is what Tim’s Vermeer is really about. You might go into the the film thinking Vermeer “cheated.” But you’ll come out of the film gobsmacked by what it took to make his paintings look the way he did. While the mirror, or camera obscura, might have allowed for photographic detail, the composition, the ideas are still pure Vermeer. The technique was science.
The film never concludes that Vermeer used this technique beyond a shadow of a doubt. What it’s really about, as Teller explained, is Tim Jenison — one man’s decade-long quest to master the technique and prove that this COULD HAVE been the way Vermeer painted. By the end of the thing, it’s impossible not to admire the tenacity, the obsession, the faithful execution of a grand experiment.
Teller was ushered out after our twenty minutes were up, off to continue rehearsals for his new play, Play Dead, at the Geffen Playhouse. The synopsis:
Invite death to come out and play in a creepy creation from Teller and performer/co-creator Todd Robbins who hosts a mesmerizing and terrorizing look at life, death and the horrific wonder between. Weaving together storytelling, illusion and telepathy proves that there is nothing more arousing than unholy resurrection and we’re never so alive as when we’re scared to death.
Its title and subject matter reflected back to Teller, and the kind of mind that can’t really ever be quiet for very long. It quite something to see him coming out from behind the silence, though what an illusion that was. We think about magic, and perhaps artistic genius, the way we sometimes think about life, love and death: do we want to know the truth? Do we find beauty in it? Does the science, does evolution give you goosebumps by its magnificence? Or does knowing how something works take away from your ability to be transported by it?
Tim’s Vermeer does not answer all of the questions. But it does answer a singular question by a hungry mind: could he have painted using a mirror? Can I paint the same way using that mirror? You’ll have to see the film, one of the year’s best, to find out the answer.