Penn & Teller make magic with 'Tim's Vermeer'

Comedic duo Penn and Teller photographed at TIFF on Friday September 6, 2013. (Veronica Henri/QMI...

Comedic duo Penn and Teller photographed at TIFF on Friday September 6, 2013. (Veronica Henri/QMI Agency)

Mark Daniell, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:45 PM ET

It’s a magic trick only Penn and Teller could show us the inner workings of.

In the Las Vegas-based magicians’ new documentary Tim’s Vermeer, the duo shine the spotlight on Texas inventor Tim Jenison and his attempt to show how 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) used mirror gadgetry to create his artistic masterpieces.

Jenison sets out to faithfully reproduce Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, a famous piece that shows a young woman and her music teacher, with the help of primitive camera obscura equipment, while Teller captures the 1,825-day epic on film. If you’re not part of the art crowd, Penn Gillette shows up onscreen to guide audiences through Jenison’s technique.

We caught up with Penn and Teller during their appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival last September to talk about art, their best memory and how long they plan on doing magic.

Why did you both decide to do a movie on art and not magic?

Penn: I didn't want to do a movie on art. I have no interest in art, but I've been friends with Tim [Jenison] for a very long time and I was talking to him over supper and he told me he was going to [reproduce The Music Lesson] and it sounded really, really fascinating. So I don't come to this saying, 'Oh, I'd like to do a movie on art’… I didn't really want to do a movie, but it was something very fascinating that I thought should be documented.

Teller: I was drawn into this by Penn… This wasn't a career move. This was, 'Wow, this is an interesting thing, let's do this.'

It took five years to make it. Did you ever think that it wasn’t going to get finished?

Penn: Tim is reliable. Once we decided we were going to make a movie, he was going to keep going…

If Vermeer used optical aids to craft masterworks like The Music Lesson and The Girl with a Pearl Earring is that cheating?

Penn: There's no such thing as cheating in art. The art is a finished product. If you react to it, you react to it… Do you think it is cheating in a movie when an actor uses a stuntman? If you don't think that's cheating, there's no cheating in art.

Teller: I wouldn't be smart enough to (replicate a Vermeer). There's a great deal of intellectual stuff going on.

You guys have been in the public eye for many, many years. Do you have a favourite memory?

Teller: … When we did the upside down bit on Saturday Night Live that was an amazing experience… I just remember when we came down from that rig on SNL this rush of blinding, pure joy. I still get that when I glance at that video. It's one of the high points in my life.

You’ve been doing the Vegas show for over a decade. How much longer do you see yourselves going?

Penn: I intend to die in office.

Teller: It gives me a great deal of pleasure to do that show…

What about a magic trick that just didn’t work. Any of those?

Penn: We did a whole walking on water routine that was terrible.

Teller: It was awful. We spent a large amount of money and time and it never made it to the stage… We've had failure, but not because we haven't pursued them too far.

Tim’s Vermeer opens in Toronto and Vancouver, Feb. 21, and Montreal, Feb. 28. It opens across the rest of Canada later this spring.

'Tim's Vermeer' reproduces genius

3 stars out of 5

Director: Teller

Running time: 80 minutes

Cast: Penn Jillette, Teller, Tim Jenison, Martin Mull, Colin Blakemore

Think of it as a magic trick centuries in the making. By creating photo-realistic masterworks like The Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Music Lesson, Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer has puzzled art scholars and enthusiasts for decades by getting us all to ask: Just how did he do that?

Texas inventor Tim Jenison believes Vermeer’s technique was aided by mirrors and light to create projections that he traced, and so he sets out to reproduce The Music Lesson. Magic duo Penn and Teller go along for the ride as observers, with the former narrating and the latter directing the five-year long journey.

Jenison visits the artist’s hometown in the Netherlands and builds a room to replicate the conditions Vermeer faced when he crafted the revered painting, which is housed at Buckingham Palace. But he’s got no real artistic talent. Will he be able to reproduce the famed painting? Not just for art lovers, Penn (narrator) and Teller (director) keep the film moving at a steady clip. The ‘How he did it’ aspect is solved tidily after 80 minutes, but it’s the getting there that makes Tim’s Vermeer a journey worth taking.

Twitter: @markhdaniell

mark.daniell@sunmedia.ca

 


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