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Penn & Teller debut mysterious doc 'Tim's Vermeer' at TIFF, await backlash

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TORONTO - Leave it to Penn & Teller to make a feature-length documentary disappear.

Actually, the illusionists' "Tim's Vermeer" — narrated by the blustery Penn Jillette, directed by his silent partner Teller — wasn't completely invisible, but only shown to a select few prior to being whisked through the Telluride Film Festival and then the Toronto International Film Festival.

"We kept it a real secret," Jillette said in an interview during the festival. "No one knew anything. I think the only people who had a copy of the DVD were Bob Dylan and Jack White. That was the entire list."

Why insist upon such secrecy? Well, the documentary focuses in on visionary video engineer Tim Jenison, a personal computing pioneer with a flair for technological creativity.

He has also harboured an obsession with Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter whose luminescent recreations of domestic life have long been a subject of marvel and curiosity. English painter David Hockney is among the art historians who have theorized that Vermeer used a camera obscura to create these mesmerizing scenes.

Jenison took that idea further, theorizing that Vermeer did use a camera obscura but in conjunction with a simple mirror to exactly replicate the colours and composition of scenes he'd arranged to then paint. To prove his theory, Jenison painstakingly recreated an exact replica of the room depicted in Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" and then spent months painting his own version of a Vermeer.

(Oh, and to satisfy any lingering curiosity: Dylan was "very fond" of the film and thus allowed producers to use "When I Paint My Masterpiece," while White was "very effusive" as well.)

The experiment took a total of 1,825 days. Jenison had no prior experience as a painter. But — without spoiling the delightful doc — what he eventually achieves should only inflame the debate over how Vermeer built his legendary works.

Given the controversy generated by Hockney's 2001 book on the subject, "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters," Jillette is preparing for another backlash to his film's findings.

"They're already starting to gear up," he says of the response from the art world. "There are people whose whole careers are based on this belief that Vermeer just was able to walk up to a canvas and from his imagination, just paint. They really believe that and their worldview is tied into that.

"Much as if they were a Branch Davidian, (they're) absolutely religious that Vermeer's talent was such that he could do things that no other human being could ever do.

"They have two choices now. They can change their worldview to include Tim, which is what we all wish in that situation we ourselves would do, or they can fight the film and deny it," he added.

"There will be people who will be beating the living (crap) out of Tim."

Not that Jillette's worried about his longtime friend, who convincingly proves his endless patience in the film.

"When Sony bought this movie, they said: 'Your guy's going to get beat up pretty bad. We're going to put him on the BBC on purpose, where people who hate him are just going to beat him up. Is your guy going to hold up?'" Jillette recalled.

"I said: 'Did you see the (damn) movie?'"

The Toronto International Film Festival wraps Sunday.

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