Gut Check: Penn & Teller's Finishing School

Gut Check: Penn & Teller's Finishing School

I never get around to seeing movies because I rarely get around to doing anything. This is an important point–as a man with no hobbies and a knack for leaving things unfinished–it’s a big deal for me to finally catch Penn & Teller’s documentary, Tim’s Vermeer.

It’s an action film in which the only action is painting. And that action beats most other action films, as it’s actually designed to prove a point: to set out on an absurd experiment (in terms of workload) and see it to its ridiculous but satisfying completion. The movie is about a job.

But it is also really about Penn Jillette’s old friend, Tim Jenison, an inventor out of Texas who’s congenially obsessed with solving one beguiling question: how did the guy who painted “Girl with a Pearl Earring” paint “Girl with a Pearl Earring?” 

Johannes Vermeer was a 17th century Dutch artist who painted works of art so realistically that they’re about as close as you can get to photographs without demanding a nose-picking brat to “say cheese.”

Some in the art world believe Vermeer achieved his mesmerizing work with technology available at the time–a device called a camera obscura–and a mix of lenses and mirrors. In a sense he was photographing with paint.

Vermeer kept no records of his craft, his paintings are his “documents,” and so little is known of the man… all you need for a pretty cool adventure. Jenison embarks on a decade-long experiment in which he tries to paint a Vermeer, using theories he believed Vermeer might have employed. Over these years, he builds an exact set replica of one of Vermeer’s more complicated paintings–building chairs, crafting window moldings, dressing mannequins, and employing a daughter to stand rigidly as models, when necessary. It’s a lot of work, leaving my movie companion shaking her head in disbelief. 

And then when the actual painting of this recreated set begins, it gets even more unbelievable–not the theory being tested, mind you–but that any person would have the stamina to follow through with such an absurd mission. Over many, many days, Jenison recreates every minuscule detail of the painting (including the tiniest dots of a Persian rug). It’s like asking your brain to climb Everest in your garage.

This, sadly, is a film for adults. I say sadly, because for most adults (I am one, most of the time), we need to be reminded that there really is an amazing world out there free of distraction–but it is a world only you can create. The movie shows the distinction between doing (anything), and completing (something). This movie may be about a photographic invention of sorts, but it’s actually a tribute to focus. It’s a celebration of one human’s steady discipline to see a project to its end. And really, it’s that relentless patience and stamina that is responsible for every damn invention we take for granted now–including the technology that diverts us daily from such stubborn fidelity. 

Watching someone set out to do something and do it, overcoming obstacles by systematically solving problems as they arise, reminds me of so many things I’ve started but never completed. Over the last 25 years, I have a half dozen scripts, in various forms of gestation, lying around the country. In boxes. In drawers. Lost in hard drives of old, boxy computers. Most are rough messes, but perhaps they could have been better messes if I stuck with them. 

But I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t care enough, or perhaps I cared too much to risk failure. I’m fairly convinced that the more energized I am about a project the more likely it will never see the light of day. Excitement over a script or story can keep me up an entire night or two–and somehow that euphoria is all I need to satisfy the goal. Just thinking about doing it has replaced actually doing it. My advice, therefore: do not think about anything.

Tim’s Vermeer is a delightful admonishment of our current predicament as creatures allured by constant connection and fleeting novelty. Completion is no longer in our vocabulary. We don’t even bother to finish sentences any


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