Movie Review: “Tim’s Vermeer” (Teller, USA 2013)

First, I will make my usual note about documentaries. My reviews of documentaries are necessarily incomplete, because documentaries should be judged not only by cinematic standards but also by journalistic ones. I am judging only the merits from a cinematic standpoint, not making any claim to be able to judge its journalistic merits. In this film’s case, I cannot imagine there being journalistic problems, since the film isn’t even making the claim that Vermeer painted using Jenison’s technique, let alone something more outlandish than that fairly reasonable if poorly evidenced claim.

“Tim is not a dressmaker, or a framer, or a carpenter, upholsterer, glazier, builder of virginals–which is a type of harpsichord–metalsmith, furniture maker, plasterer, tile layer, or a lens maker. But he’s not an artist, either! He used what he was–a technologist–to help him become all those things that he wasn’t.”

This quote is the heart of Tim’s Vermeer, the documentary debut of the typically-silent half of magic duo Penn & Teller. The film tells the story of Tim Jenison as he attempts to paint his own version of a painting of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer using an optical technological technique that would have been available (albeit unknown then or since) in Vermeer’s day.

Jenison is an inventor who has been deeply involved in video and graphic design, so he was not clearly out of his depth in looking at Vermeer’s paintings and seeing the photographic level of detail and agreeing with others who have speculated that Vermeer was using optical techniques such as the camera obscura to produce his works. When he discovered the technique that he thought would reproduce the effects that Vermeer captures, he worked on some test cases and spoke with other artists and experts, all of whom agreed that his ingenious technique produced something that Vermeer could have used that would achieve the results he achieved. However, Tim wanted to be able to convince more people, so he decided to paint his own version of Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson to show that he could use his technique to paint a full room in full color and come at least close enough to matching Vermeer to show that it was possible that the Dutch painter used a similar technique. He would confine himself to only what was available to Vermeer–mixing his own paints and building his own lenses by 17th century standards so that he could show that he is not using a modern technological advantage.

What would seem to be a problem is that Jenison was not a painter. And he would have to build a copy of the room in Vermeer’s painting. And he may be wealthy and intelligent, but like Penn Jillette says above, he didn’t have the training for doing lots of what he needed to do.

The basic point of Tim’s Vermeer is not whether Vermeer used optics. It’s not even that Jenison was able to essentially reproduce The Music Lesson. The point is the promise of science and technology, as shown through Jenison. He can’t paint, but he still managed to paint The Music Lesson. He’s not an expert virginal builder, but he built one. He was able to do so many things that he “shouldn’t” be able to do because he has two things at his disposal: his own mind and technology.

His Emmy-winning 3-D optical technology, combined with the basic geometry of lenses, is what allows him to create a digital version of the room in the painting to find the dimensions of everything within it. He can build the legs for his virginal not because he’s an expert craftsman, but because he can get a lathe and then is smart enough to figure out how to make it longer when he needs to. He can build the legs for his chair “not out of any love of woodworking,” as he says, “but because you can’t buy them anymore.”

Throughout it all, Jenison maintains a kind of passive charisma that comes from his sheer simplicity that is extremely reminiscent of Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters. He is generally showing a flat affect, except when he is overcome with emotion upon completion of his painting. Even his jokes (playing “Smoke on the Water” on the cello and saying he painted an elephant in the music room) are delivered in such a deadpan that they almost don’t seem like jokes. And yet it is his simple matter-of-factness that makes him seem both interesting and trustworth as he goes about his work.

Teller makes an excellent choice in using his longtime partner Penn Jillette as a narrator. He is as animated as Jenison is not, and the bit of extra liveliness that he gives the proceedings is necessary for it not to become as laborious as the painting was for Jenison.

Similarly, Teller and editor Patrick Sheffield do an excellent job cutting the fat from a process that is very slow and involved but would probably be extraordinarily dull to watch. The entire film is under an hour and a half, and Jenison doesn’t begin his final work that takes him 130 days until halfway through. Jenison says at one point that sometimes the work is “like watching paint dry,” and it surely would be the same for viewership if the film didn’t move along so quickly.

All told, Tim’s Vermeer is an excellent and hopeful documentary. It may tell the story of one man’s odd obsession and the work it produced, but it is about far more than that, and that’s what makes this film special.

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Movie Review: “Vals im Bashir” (Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany/USA/Finland/Switzerland/Belgium/Australia 2008)

To begin, here is my standard note about documentaries: to judge them fully and properly, one should also judge them by journalistic standards, which requires researching the subject in a similar fashion to how the documentarian should have. It requires an amount of work that is rather infeasible for a critic (perhaps especially for an amateur critic like me). So, you should take this entire review with a heaping scoop of salt and remember that it’s only part of the story.

Waltz with Bashir tells the story of filmmaker Ari Folman as he attempts to reconstruct his lost memories of his presence for or participation in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre of 1982. It begins with a friend telling him about a dream relating to that time in the military that sparks a “vision” based on the day of the massacre. Folman visits a psychologist friend to learn about memory and then sets about finding people who were present at the massacre to find out what he saw and what his participation was. The first person he finds is one from his vision, an old friend whom he believes was there with him, who is willing to talk to Folman but says, “It’s okay if you draw, but don’t film.”

It seems that interaction was the impetus for what really makes this film unique: it’s an animated documentary. It follows most of the same structure and even similar beats and types of shots to what most documentaries do, but instead of simple medium camera shots of faces, it’s an unusual and striking animation that frankly looks like nothing else.

Folman and illustrator David Polonsky come up with an artistic style that is truly unique. It looks something like a mixture of the animated sequences in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (David Yates, UK/USA 2010) and the animated sequences in Chicken with Plums (Vincent Paronnaud/Marjane Satrapi, France/Germany/Belgium 2011). However, this film has a hand-drawn roughness to its look, apparently from the fact that Polonsky drew the film with his non-dominant left hand, that is unlike anything I can remember seeing. (Though admittedly, I am far from an expert on animation.)

And that striking, odd animation fits the film, which is not actually about a massacre or about Folman but rather about the nature of memory.

The psychologist immediately tells Folman about one of my favorite pieces of memory research (I was a psychology major, so yes I have favorite pieces of memory research): subjects were given a series of photographs of their childhood. Most were real, but one was fake, with their image superimposed on a scene that never occurred. Confronted with these photographs of fictitious events, subjects created memories of the events, claiming to remember details far beyond what the photographs could tell. Some subjects required a little nudging to start creating their memories, but most required nothing more than the picture. Folman uses this research as a jumping off point to explore the nature of memory, the way some people lose memories of the same events that others are convinced that they remember to the most minute detail.

Like Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada 2012), the film is using the way that it tells its story to make a point about memory. However, this film is mostly using its visuals–it’s an animation of the past, not a photograph, that we see slowly being constructed as Folman seeks out witness after witness. Even their memories and current interviews are presented in animation, as parts of the picture show rather than an objective, photographic reality. It’s a very smart technique that makes the film’s point very quickly and simply.

And then, when it appears that we’ve gotten the final version of Folman’s participation in the massacre and the massacre itself, he pulls the rug out from under us and shows us actual footage of the aftermath of the massacre. The rubble-filled “camp,” the screaming family members, the dead bodies, the blood, the smoke–everything we’ve heard described and seen drawn out for us is now suddenly there in real photographic reality. It’s one of the more powerful endings I can ever remember seeing in a film, and it’s the visual technique that makes it so powerful.

Throughout the film, one thing that keeps it from becoming a dull slot through depression is its sense of whimsy. There are dark jokes between the soldiers and bits of comic relief in the animation. But perhaps the best part is Max Richter’s original music. In parts of the film, the haunting, dramatic score adds to the emotional power of the story being told. At other points, the bizarre lyrics on top of the spot-on ’80s pop and rock music is what lightens what could otherwise be an oppressive film.

Waltz with Bashir is not a typical documentary, and it’s one that should not be missed. It has a special look that gives it a power few documentaries can even come close to matching, so much so that it actually surpasses its already highly-charged subject matter.

Movie Review: “Stories We Tell” (Sarah Polley, Canada 2012)

This is not an easy film to figure out. In theory, it’s a documentary about actress/director/generally-awesome-person Sarah Polley’s journey to discovering that her birth was in fact the result of an affair between her mother and a film producer whom Sarah had never known. However, Polley hired actors to make “home movies” of past events in order to reconstruct the story, which is not exactly the way documentaries are typically made and in fact is somewhat antithetical to the basic concept of a documentary.

Within the film, Polley herself discusses the fact that she’s filming a “project” about her discovery and using it to show how people tell stories and warp their memories to their own purposes. She openly says that she isn’t sure whether the project is for herself or the family or an audience. But if that’s what she’s doing, including discussions about that being the point and “recreating” the past with enacted scenes works against the idea that she’s showing how reality and memory are not the same doesn’t really make sense.

So what is it?

In the end, after discussing what she’s trying to do, she ends up revealing the truth while everyone else discusses the ideas of truth, storytelling, and memory: it’s simply a woman trying to connect with a mother she lost before she was old enough to know her by reconstructing her out of the memories of others and what tangible evidence she can find. In that way, it is a very personal project and one whose ability to affect an audience should, by all rights, be limited.

Instead, it is one of the most moving, affecting, fascinating pieces of filmmaking a person can see, and I hardly even know how to say what makes it so special.

There are moments, like watching characters riding a bus in shots that essentially match those beautiful shots of Sarah herself in The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, Canada 1997) and the shots of her reactions to her father reading his own written account of this entire situation, that are effective because of the restraint that they show and the way they pretend not to manipulate the audience at all.

There are other moments like some of the descriptions of Joanna Polley’s desires for a film career and deep-seated independence that hold resonance simply because we, as an audience, already know her daughter and can see how she came out of this background.

So many moments in the film work so well for so many different reasons that it’s tempting to think that the film is actually a camel, built out of disparate parts thrown against a wall and only somewhat fitting together. However, it most definitely is not. Everything in the film is carefully chosen to deepen its picture of Joanna Polley while we accompany her daughter on this journey of discovery. Even the sequence of discussion about this “project” being a rumination on storytelling and memory is really there to say, “I don’t have the memories to tell the story of my mother. The best I can do is construct her out of others’ memories and story.” Polley’s focus on her point is admirable and the fact that she could stay so focused in such an unusual film highlights just how silly it is how so many filmmakers cannot do it in fictional narratives over which they have complete control.

Ultimately, Stories We Tell is a difficult phenomenon to explain. It’s a brilliant and deeply affecting film, but it is so unlike anything else that you will ever see that it’s difficult to explain its greatness. It won’t be winning the major awards that it should win because of its singularity, but it is nothing short of a masterpiece, and I have rarely been happier to have seen a film than I was with this one.