True/False Films: Tim's Vermeer & Particle Fever


In Tim's Vermeer engineer Tim Jenison is determined to uncover the mechanism Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer used in creating his paintings, the speculation that he used an augmented painting device in order to accomplish his (pre)photorealistic images in the 17th century an often debated issue among painters& historians. In Particle Fever a group of experimenters at the Swiss research center CERN set out to create a machine, THE Large Hadron Collider, to prove or disprove the existence of the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle that the Standard Model of particle physics relies on, and whose discovery might lead to a better understanding of the origins of much of life/mass as we perceive it in our universe. The basic pursuits of Tim Jenison and the team at CERN (and beyond CERN since the project is an enormous ongoing international quest) are one in the same: building a machine, to test a theory, to find answers to nagging mysteries of the physical world. But, the thing that both also so slyly brought up is that imperceptible line between art & science, a line that's fitting when displayed in the medium of film!

Tim Jenison is painted as a subject who seems excited by life. He is an engineer that feels the need to create things, to understand the mechanics of the world, to positively (or amusingly) add things to make it a more tolerable place. Goaded by his friend, Tim becomes obsessed with the idea that Vermeer used a machine to create his work, setting out on a journey that takes him to the hometown of Vermeer in the Netherlands, behind the reins of a lathe, into the world of lo-fi optical instruments (image directly below), into the studio of the lovely painter David Hockney, and beyond- his obsession alone a feat of endurance. Yet this isn't really a story about a dude attempting to paint a Vermeer, it is so much more. Is there less value in Vermeer's work if he did use a "machine" to paint his masterpieces? Why don't we consider the creator of a machine an artist? On the continuum of creativity where do art & science meet? Overlap? Are skill & passion the same thing? What do we each find beautiful? Tim's Vermeer slyly posed question after question about how people appreciate, configure, and define not just art but everything really, bringing these questions to light through film, the perfect medium of an alternate reality, one that we capture through a lens and one that perfectly underscores these questions of originality and perception.

Penn & Teller (the uber illusionists & comics that taught me some pretty gnarly parlor tricks when I was a kid and that I, to this day, teach nearly every kid I babysit) are the producer & director behind Tim's Vermeer managing to craft a movie that feels so easy, so natural but that, much like their magic tricks, necessitates a real, serious craft & intelligence to execute. Penn & Teller do not have the answers but they see the blurry line between fact & fiction, art & science, truth & beauty around us and made a sweet, entertaining and thought provoking film to shine a light on the inherent fuzziness. The film might not be extremely artful but what it lacks in difficulty it makes up for in laughs, a thing that I wish more films would recognize as not such a bad thing, and again adding a comment on our unfortunately rigid categories of dry documentary & enjoyable narrative filmmaking.

My favorite scene in Particle Fever was when two particle theorists peer out their window at a large, abstract public sculpture sitting on the grounds of their giant university. They eventually go down to look at it closer. Tiles of what looks like slate are stacked in rows on a bed of stones. The physicists declare there is no order here and that if they weren't meant to be moved they would have been secured to the ground. They then proceed to move the pieces around like a chess board, positioning the big pieces of splintered slate into forms more pleasing to their eyes. This brief scene, similarly to Tim's Vermeer, showed a moment of the grey area between what we see as order and chaos, one man's highly controlled sculpture, another man's mess, one man's highly patterned universe (Standard Model) is another's infinitely diverse one (is it the Multiverse Model? Can't remember...I feel like I failed the test!). This film follows the parallel lives of theorists and experimenters that intersect with the flipping of the on switch of The Hadron Collider, a project that had been decades in the making, all of their long hanging hopes & fears spinning around in two particle beams. But this film isn't a film about a science project, or a film about matter, it is a film about what matters, what passions drive us to continue to create, to look for answers, patterns, meaning in the photorealistic painting (or is it abstract painting?) in which we live.

I've always thought that a rigid discipline model in education is such a detriment to learning. A major in college can so easily focus a student on one path of knowledge. The many types of exploration, creativity and emotion found in one subject can increase the complexity of questions and answers in another. I feel like a lot of the rigid defining of so many things, far beyond education, keeps society from achieving and living life to its fullest. As Tim Jenison and David Kaplan (a producer of PF and a particle theorist depicted in the film) stood in front of me at the screening for both of these films I had a slight glimmer of hope and happiness. There are people out there making very real art & very real science about very surreal realities and they seem to know no boundaries! Seeing these sprawling, heart warming, and scientific stories in film reinforced my ongoing belief in the power of this medium! Tim's Vermeer and Particle Fever hold a kind of understanding, laughter, illumination, and humanity that make me glad to be alive and even more glad to be in the audience of these wonderful movies! Applause! Applause! Yay Film! Yay Science! Yay Art! YAY! YAY! (Yeah, I kind lost it at the end of this post... I blame the Waldorf in me, thanks mom!)


 

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