“Tim’s Vermeer” or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imitation

Films about obsessions usually tell us more about the obsessed than the obsession in itself. That’s why I don’t agree with Jonathan Jones’ review on The Guardian of Teller’s documentary Tim’s Vermeer, which tells the story of Tim Jenison, a tech entrepreneur and inventor who desperately tried to discover the secrets of the painting techniques adopted by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) After years of obsessive hard work trying to prove Philip Steadman’s theory, according to which Vermeer used some sort of optical machine in his workshop while painting masterpieces such as The Music Lesson (a theory that, if proved right, could update the whole concept of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction), what’s left then with Jenison’s story?

If it’s like Jones stressed in his review, “Tim’s painting does not look anything like a real Vermeer. It looks like what it is: a pedantic and laborious imitation.” Fair enough, given the fact that Jenison had never painted anything before and did not claim to be a professional, nor an amateur, painter.

Tim Jenison tries to discover the secrets of Vermeer's technique.

So what is it all about? To me the documentary focuses on the process of reproducibility more than on the quality of the reproduction. Instead of showing how good or bad Jenison’s output is, the whole point is that he managed to reproduce one of the most astounding masterpieces of its time, with absolutely no training in the art he tries to master.

According to Jones, Vermeer’s genius is not present in this painting. Of course it is not. How could it be? That’s exactly where the occasional painter leaves the room to the professional. In the words of painter David Hockney, who is portrayed in the documentary, the fact that someone could end up with a decent replica of such an iconic painting at the first attempt “might disturb quite a lot of people.”

Tim Jenison (right) and producer Penn Jillette.

Why? Because it challenges the old notion of the artist blessed by the Gods, who produces inimitable art infused by an ineffable quality. In Tim’s Vermeer, painter Martin Mull comments that he took 40 years to get the same result Jenison achieved in half an hour. That’s precisely the point.

Does this reduce the importance of Vermeer as an Old Master? Not at all. Instead it says a lot about how uncomfortable we are when machines enter the realm of creativity, when this is supposed to be a special and unique gift, and not a commodity anyone could buy.

Let’s Go South and Enjoy Some (Cine)Excess

Cine-Excess is one of those places where you can spend your lunch break eating sandwiches and fresh fruit while speaking about moviemaking, crowdfunding and gatekeepers in the film industry with veteran horror directors such as Jeff Lieberman. That’s exactly what happened to me on 15 November, while I was waiting to present my paper at the VIII International Conference and Festival on Global Cult Film Traditions, directed by Xavier Mendik and hosted by the University of Brighton and The Duke’s at Komedia Cinema.

Cine-Excess header

Cine-Excess is a unique event where fans of horror and underground films can sneak into the theatre and enjoy screenings of cult films such as the 40th anniversary release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or attend many lectures on their beloved gems, ranging from 1964 Herschell Gordon Lewis’ classic Two Thousand Maniacs!, to the new wave of French horror well represented by director Pascal Laugier (Martyrs anyone?)

In addition, you get the chance to receive live updates on the status of the crowdfunding campaign for Dario Argento’s The Sandman, starring the rock icon Iggy Pop. Indeed, one of the most interesting events of this edition was the industry panel on film financing in the digital age “Cult Crowdfunders: New Audiences, New Funders and the Cult Indie Scene”, chaired by Professor Gillian Youngs.

Early poster design for "The Sandman", by Paul Gerrard

Lieberman was there as a guest of honour as the festival ran a retrospective on his career. The mastermind behind cult horrors such as 1976 Squirm, featuring an invasion of killer worms, and 1977 Blue Sunshine, based on a series of LSD-related homicides, received a Lifetime Achievement Award on Friday 14.

Theatrical poster for "Blue Sunshine"

It was my second time at Cine-Excess. In 2012, when the conference was hosted at the Odeon Cinema in London, I took part in a panel addressing the media impact of Charles Manson. Back then I presented a paper titled Surfing With Charlie, focused on the remix and mashup videos of the convicted cult leader. The topic this year was the titillating “Are You Ready for the Country – Cult Cinema and Rural Excess” and my paper sounded very different: Italian Sexploitation in Rural Veneto. The Case of “The Agrestic Cinema Manifesto”.

Poster For "Vigasio Sexploitation" Vol. 1The title of my panel was “Deep River Savages: The Rural in Italian Cult Film”. Two of my colleagues were addressing one of the best internationally known cycles in Italian cinema, the so-called giallo film. Austin Fisher analysed the political background of the Italian hinterland, trying to locate the “rural giallo”, while Andreas Ehrenreich delved into the screenplay of Sergio Martino’s Torso.

Since I was interested in discovering what happened in the countryside after that successful era, to fulfil this year’s theme I scouted for the most bizarre audiovisual content shot in Italy within a rural setting. I came across what a Venetian filmmaker, Sebastiano Montresor, produced and directed under the label “Agrestic Cinema”: four films free to download as diptyches at Vigasio Sexploitation and Films to Smoke.

Quite surprisingly, the settings of these “audiovisual Frankensteins”, as he calls his corpus of films, were abandoned buildings and the countryside of Vigasio, not far from the small town where I was born, Nogara, in the Region of Veneto and Province of Verona. So the paradox of the whole thing was that I had to go to the most southern place in the UK to discover a different and eccentric view of the bucolic countryside where I grew up. Something that, when I was living there, I wasn’t even aware of.

Audience Design: Two Strategy Sketches at Connecting Cottbus

In the film industry there is one very specific place where creativity meets business: the market. It’s the place where scriptwriters, filmmakers and producers have the concrete chance to secure a budget for their projects, or find co-production opportunities that might open new international doors to develop their films. It’s also the place where, in the space of a few minutes, creative teams pitch their stories in front of a selected audience of decision makers and investors: a small arena where you can literally smell fear and excitement.

Last week I spent four days in Germany at Connecting Cottbus, the East-West co-production market at the Film Festival Cottbus, focused on East European Cinema. As alumni of the Torino Film Lab Audience Design programme, Juan Morali and I were invited to represent the international laboratory that supports emerging talents through training, development and funding activities. Our aim was to introduce the concept of Audience Design by working on two selected projects and showcasing the sketched strategies to engage audiences and raise awareness on stories at an early stage of development.

Connecting Cottbus logo

After reading the scripts and checking material already available, such as mood boards, the process behind designing strategies usually takes place over several months. Given the format of this event, we only had a few hours to work with the members of the teams after a preliminary exchange of emails.

On Wednesday 5 November Juan and I worked with them in a closed workshop: writer/director Anca Damian and producer Roxana Garet from Romanian production company Aparte Film applied to Co|Co with the drama In Perfect Health; producer Jamila Wenske from the German One Two Films and director Thomas Sieben were developing the political thriller The Vegetable Lamb.

Audience Design closed workshop with selected projects. Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

Audience Design closed workshop with selected projects. Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

We used tools and techniques to brainstorm a first set of ideas, which we later developed into a more coherent vision for each film. On 7 November, while publicly showcasing the results, we tried to provoke our audience and challenge some prejudices and old habits that, according to us, are well-established within the film industry. We felt the need to do that when we realised that the reaction of the audience during the previous days was the one we have usually experienced in the past: everyone wants to know more about how to engage audiences, but there is a mix of fear and laziness in facing the reality of a business that is changing very quickly.

Audience Design – Two Strategy Sketches

Juan Morali, Nicolò Gallio. Photo credits: Connecting Cottbus.

We were not the only ones discussing audiences at Connecting Cottbus. On Thursday Peter Buckingham from SampoMedia ran the workshop “Talking About Films From an Audience Perspective”, delving into technology and users’ needs, while stressing the importance of Service Design. His presentation led to the same reactions that we had experienced so many times while talking with writers, director, producers and exhibitors: no one wants to hear the word “marketing” and people involved in the art-house scene still believe in the romantic concept of the artist who produces art outside the rule of the market.

In our presentation we clarified what is for us the key element of Audience Design. Both Juan and I believe that the script must be treated as intellectual property that can be expanded through different channels to reach very well defined communities. Each of those potential audiences needs to be considered as part of a major discourse surrounding the story and Audience Design is a process and a method at the core of which lies the preservation of the integrity of the story.

Audience Design open workshop. Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio

Audience Design open workshop. Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio

We also addressed issues such as old-fashioned demographic age segmentations, the fear of digital media, a general industry reluctance in dropping established protocols and business models, as well as the dangerous “egocentric culture” which affects so many creatives nowadays, who refuse to acknowledge the impact of interacting with fans. Whether you like it or not, the process is already in place: people are talking about you and your films. Simply ignoring the conversation will only damage the opportunities to develop your next project.