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This film image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Tim Jenison polishing a lens in ‘Tim’s Vermeer.’ (AP)
‘Tim’s’ demystifies a masterpiece ‘Infinitely Polar’ about director’s troubled youth

‘Tim’s Vermeer’ is a simple little documentary that, in not 90 minutes, accomplishes nothing less than the demystification of artistic genius. We’ve long been romanticized by the concept of the divine artist, blessed with otherworldly talent. “Tim’s Vermeer” isn’t any less in awe of great masters like Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It just proves masterworks take more than pixie dust: They take hard work. The film chronicles the unlikely discovery of a Texas inventor, Tim Jenison, who believes he’s found the key to how the 17th-century artist painted with such photorealistic detail 150 years before the daguerreotype. Conspiracy theories have abounded, many of them focusing on his possible use of camera obscura (a device that projects an image on a wall or screen).

Jenison’s belief is that some of Vermeer’s most famous paintings (he left behind 34) were done not just with a camera obscura-like contraption, but with a mirror that enabled him to exactly copy the images reflected. By creating a rough approximate of this, Jenison (who had never painted before in his life) finds he can draw brilliantly detailed paintings.  He sets out to prove his theory by exactly reproducing Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” recreating the precise conditions Vermeer painted in. Jenison turns a San Antonio warehouse into a replica of Vermeer’s studio, right down to period-accurate lenses, paint dyes and costumes. It took nearly a year to build the studio, and four more to paint his Vermeer.

Jenison is a bearish, inquisitive engineer who made millions with the early computer graphics software company he founded, NewTek. He’s a tinkerer, who has continued to channeled his curiosity into myriad inventions. He also happens to be buddies with the illusionist duo Penn and Teller, who decided to document Jenison’s audacious experiment. Teller (the silent one) directs, while Penn Jillette (a producer) serves as an on-camera interviewer in the film. It’s a great irony that a story about the difficult realities behind a captivating image should come from a pair of illusionists. Part of the drama in “Tim’s Vermeer” comes from always expecting Jillette to suddenly pull the rug out and yell “Presto!” — and reveal their film to be merely a clever put-on.

But magicians are really craftsman who labor through endless practice to perfect a smooth sleight of hand and seamless misdirection. In Vermeer, they recognize a fellow illusionist, one who has shrouded his astonishing technique in mystery for centuries. And Jenison’s tedious demonstration (“like watching paint dry,” he jokes) is quite convincing.  He also gains the endorsement of famed British artist David Hockney, whose book “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” argued that lenses and optics went into masterpieces by da Vinci, Caravaggio and others. Whether “Tim’s Vermeer” proves unequivocally how Vermeer worked is a question for art historians, not film critics. But the film — an ode to craftsmanship — establishes without a doubt that many of the traits we reserve for other fields — dedication, ingenuity — are also inherent to the artistic process. Ta-da. “Tim’s Vermeer,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for some strong language. Running time: 80 minutes. Three stars out of four.

At the beginning of Maya Forbes’ directorial debut, “Infinitely Polar Bear,” we meet two young sisters who are locked inside a car with their mother as protection from their father during one of his manic episodes. Based on Forbes’ own childhood, the film, which she also wrote, follows the struggles of a family coping with the bipolar disorder of the husband and father, Cameron, played with sensitivity by Mark Ruffalo. It’s a tricky role, because despite his condition and occasional flare-ups, Cameron is not painted as a monster. While he’s on the brink of unraveling much of the time, Cameron can be civil, even tender, and only wants the best for his family.

Zoe Saldana portrays his wife, Maggie, and newcomers Ashley Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky, Forbes’ own daughter, play the sisters, Faith and Amelia. Based in Massachusetts in the 1970s, both Cameron and Maggie are determined to give their girls a private school education. But they can’t afford it since Cameron is unable to hold a job. So Maggie decides to leave the girls with their father and go to school in New York to earn her MBA in order to provide a better life for their family. Though Cameron is mentally unstable, Maggie believes he can care for the children while she’s away.

Of course, there are the inevitable mishaps: Cameron goes out late and gets drunk, leaving the girls home alone, and he only cleans the apartment on occasion. Still, his love for his daughters remains undeniable. Forbes, 45, was 10 years old when she and her little sister were left in their father’s care. “My parents did this very unusual and risky thing,” said Forbes at the Sundance Film Festival where “Infinitely Polar Bear” premiered. “But it worked out. My sister and I both survived and thrived.” Forbes’ sister, China, 43, is the lead singer of multi-genre band Pink Martini, “which I attribute to my father singing all of the time,” adds the filmmaker. “He was also a great storyteller. That’s what I do.” When searching for the right actor to play her father, Forbes knew she needed someone “who not only got the role, but brought warmth and the humanity to it,” she says.

Ruffalo was at the top of her list. But the actor says he actually “chased Maya down” for the role. “I read the script and was really moved,” Ruffalo said in an interview at Sundance. “So I basically begged.” To prepare to play Forbes’ father, Ruffalo got three pieces of video of Cameron. “One was this Super 8 video that he shot himself in full-blown manic up-cycle,” explains Ruffalo. Tapping into the behavior of Forbes’ father wasn’t difficult, adds the actor. “I know quite a few bipolar people, so I understand mental illness,” he says. “The stuff that was hard was the stuff in the hospital.” (At one point in the film, Cameron is subdued with drugs after being hauled off to a mental facility.)

Cameron’s chain smoking was another hurdle. Ruffalo had to smoke in just about every scene, a task he says gave him a respiratory infection. “They were herbal cigarettes, but it was a lot to ask of him,” said Forbes. “I was in bed for like 10 days,” added Ruffalo. “But I had to do it! We’re telling the truth.” Forbes’ father’s smoking resulted in pancreatic cancer that took his life in 1998.

By Jake Coyle

By: Jake Coyle

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