Tuesday, December 30, 2014


The music of Bach’s Goldberg Variations acquires for some viewers of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991) a perhaps unwelcome significance. . . More on that in a moment.

First, there’s news of the recent release on Blu-ray of Albert Lewin’s 1945 horror classic, Picture of Dorian Gray, based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel. This is welcome, indeed. But the new release of this underrated MGM film is guilty of one glaring omission. Nothing is said about the music by Chopin that literally underscores the disturbed mind and divided soul of the eponymous Dorian Gray. I refer to the 24th Prelude from the Opus 28 set, which evokes the hammer blows of Jove’s thunderbolts. Heard throughout both diagetically and extra-digetically, and in a variety of instrumentations, the brief piano piece undergoes shape-shifting variants, some languid and dreamy, others brutal and sinister, like the inner confusions of Gray himself.

The use of classical music in the aural depiction of all manner of cinematic villains, rascals, and homicidal maniacs has been going on since the so-called “silent” days, when pianists dutifully quoted from their catalogues of classical pieces.

For now, however, I restrict myself to the sound cinema. When Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake theme is heard under the opening credits of Lugosi’s Dracula, the die (as it were) was cast. And just a few years later, Lugosi and film composer Heinz Roemheld worked together in another horror film, The Black Cat, which featured a non-stop compendium of classical allusions to music by Liszt, Schumann, Schubert and virtually every other composer of a romantic stamp. The Black Cat still holds the trophy for the sheer clever audacity of its exuberant catalogue of musical horrors.

I pass by the references beyond counting to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and the traditional Dies Irae. Needless to say every fiend incarnate sitting at the Wurlitzer has belted out one or the other.

Specifically, I note here a few examples of how certain classical tunes have been used as themes, or “signatures” for some of the great monsters in movie history. In Fritz Lang’s M, for example, Peter Lorre’s child molester whistles Edvard Grieg’s ”In the Hall of the Mountain King as his musical calling card. Gangster Tony Camonte is another whistler, whose rendition of the ”Sextet” from Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermore, is heard several times in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932). More recently, Julia Robert's abuse at the hands of her deranged husband in Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) is accompanied by Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Every time he puts a record on the turntable, you want to scream out warnings to his hapless bride. The same year of the film’s release turned out to be a banner year for sinister music. Joseph Ruben’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle features the aria “Poor Wand’ring One” from Gilbert and Sulllivan’s Pirates of Penzance as the musical analogue for the pathological nanny, portrayed by Rebecca DeMornay.

We observe that this last music is hardly sinister at all; rather, its sweet plaintive strains impart a disturbingly poignant quality to DeMornay’s horrific acts. Which is the point. Indeed, classical music is frequently deployed as a counterpoint to the villains depicted on screen. Take a look again at the main title sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, where the graceful measures of Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana counterpoint De Niro’s slow-motion shadow-boxing in the ring.

Which brings us back to Hannibal Lecter and the music of Bach’s The Goldberg Variations. Why did Jonathan Demme have Lecter select a recording of the opening “Aria” as he chewed the face off a prison guard? You would think a more brutal, even savage choice would have been more appropriate. In response, pianist Jeremy Denk offers this insight: “Cunning, evil directors almost always use classical music as an ironic foil, a tool for dissociation. This perpetuates a stereotype: classical music is unnatural. It is not the music for normal events.”

Such an unfortunate stereotype undoubtedly exists, and it has been proven over and over again, for better and worse, in the movies, to the er, delectation of us viewers.

Now pardon me a moment, those ambivalent opening measures of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor are going ‘round and ‘round in my head. . . waiting for some sinister image to ground it in some horrible reality. . .

Wednesday, December 24, 2014



Now that the late, great filmmaker Robert Altman is in the news again with the publication of Altman, by his widow, Kathryn Altman, and the subject of a major retrospective of his films in New York, it's time to bring him home once again. Home to Kansas City. Home to where he got his start as a film and television director. And the home to which he returned periodically. I recall an interview I did with him, March 5, 1991, during one of his return trips, when he attended a festival of his films. "I'm here in Kansas City," he told me at the time, "because I was invited to be honored at this Film Festival. I got a letter from the Mayor and he said he was going to give me a key to the city. They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town. At that time, they threw away the key. Now, they're giving me one!”

Robert Altman was born in l925 into an upper middle-class family on West 68th Street in the tree-lined suburb of Prairie Village. The Altman name was honored in Kansas City. His grandfather, Frank Sr., was an entrepreneur who erected several important downtown buildings, including the Altman Building at llth and Walnut in l895 (destroyed in l976) and the New Center Building at l5th and Troost (later the site of the Calvin Company); and his father, B.C., was a prominent life insurance executive. During young Robert's school years at Rockhurst High School and Southwest High School, he divided his spare time between the fabled jazz clubs of the l8th and Vine area and moviegoing at the old Brookside Theater.

"I was l4 or l5 years old in the late 1930s, when Kansas City was a wide open town,” Altman recalls. “There must have been at least 50 jazz clubs, all strung out along these streets around 18th and Vine. They all played here, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins. All the bands, all the players would wind up here, play a night here. It was a wild mix and a new style of blues and jazz came out of it. At the time you didn't think about all the vice that ran rampant everywhere, with the gambling, drugs, the crime. And the gangsters--like the Italian mobster Johnny Lazia--my dad told me you paid them protection money if you didn't want your business wrecked. The one place you didn't go for protection was the police force! All I knew was that the jazz and the songs I heard were really hot stuff. Now, these days, I come back and don't see the same city, but I smell it and I feel it.

"I spent my first 19 years here. It's where I got all my chips. I was just a kid when I was seeing my first movies at the Brookside Theater. I was fascinated with them. The movies I saw there just seemed to happen--nobody made them. I guess that's the way I still see movies--I want them to be occurrences, to just seem to be happening. I wasn't aware that all the time I was being taught and that I was learning. I was just observing and catching things by osmosis. Growing up, I lived on West 68th Street and went to Rockhurst for a year, Southwest High School, Wentworth Military Academy, and then the Air Force (where I co-piloted B-24s).

"I was just a kid when I went to work for Calvin Films. It was a Kansas City company that made industrial films. It was at l5th and Troost, a 7-story building. My grandfather built that building. It had its own l6mm lab. I learned all the tools of the trade there. I earned $250 a month, and it was mostly OJT. You can learn anything by just getting your hands dirty. At Calvin I did a lot of films for Gulf Oil and some safety films for Caterpillar Tractor and International Harvester--stuff like "How to Run a Filling Station." They were training films. They weren't a goal for me, just a process to learn how to do entertainment and dramatic films. It was a school, that's what it was. I worked there for six years, on and off. Then I went to Los Angeles and wrote some film treatments. I left Calvin three times, but couldn't get anything happening out there. So I'd come back and they'd drop me in salary a little bit each time I came back! A little punishment. The third time they said it was like the Davis Cup: They were going to keep me!”

Another, tender memory comes to light. "I remember when I was about four years old, I went to Union Station with my mother to meet my uncle. She bought me a red balloon, full of helium. But it slipped out of my fingers and flew up to the ceiling. I remember I cried and cried. I can still show you the exact spot on the ceiling where it rested, out of reach."

The 70-year filmmaker tracks with his mind's eye the flight of an errant balloon. Whether it represents his lost youth or the elusive artist's dream, it seems entirely likely that it's still there, waiting for him--but just out of reach.

Sunday, December 21, 2014


Every Christmas I turn to the ”Dingley Dell” chapter in Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, as if I needed any other reason to revisit that glorious novel. Although we sometimes forget that those particular pages do not directly concern a Christmas party but a wedding celebration, the spirit of the holiday prevails nonetheless. The Christmas spirit of charity and compassion and familial bonds is everywhere in his stories, no matter what the subject. The details of the Christmas story itself, as revealed in Luke, on the other hand, are noticeably absent, even in the ever-popular A Christmas Carol.

"It should not be imagined," wrote biographer Edgar Johnson, "that Christmas has for Dickens more than the very smallest connection with Christian dogma or theology." Dickens had been brought up in the Church of England (although his parents were not strict adherents). He claimed he learned at an early age to detest church ceremonies with their long-winded sermons and Sunday evening services. Being washed and scrubbed for these occasions was like being "steamed like a potato in the unventilated breath" of his hated minister and congregation, as he recalled, and he usually fell asleep during services. As his most recent biographer, Fred Kaplan has noted, "he associated organized religion with stale custom at best, with repressive fanaticism at worst. He aspired to a religion of the heart that transcended sectarian dogma."
He found it in the celebration of Christmas. Its tradition of festive family celebrations and its spirit of mystery, mirth and charity supplied a fantasy refuge for the man whose own childhood and family had been so troubled and disrupted. "Indeed, throughout his adult life," writes John Mortimer, "[Dickens] thought of himself as a boy, as the child who had been wide-eyed in the theater and been maltreated in the blacking factory. The trouble with Ebenezer Scrooge, the Christmas-hating miser, is that he has completely lost touch with the child within him." In a more general sense, insisted G. K. Chesterton, that most genial and insightful of Dickens commentators, Dickens felt that Christmas was a tool in the battle against the stifling drabness of English industrialism: "In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the old European festival, Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent."

Thus, Dickens poured all of his formidable energies into his Christmas stories. They readily reveal the contradictions in his mercurial and restless temperament. The deft and fragile touch in the tender whimsies of an early story, "The Christmas Tree," the toymaker's fantasies in The Cricket on the Hearth, and the cozy and warm tone of the Dingley Dell festivities in The Pickwick Papers contrasts sharply with the heavy-handed and forced heartiness of many of the seemingly endless eating and drinking scenes--such as the Cratchit family celebration in A Christmas Carol ("Never was there such a goose!"). Such excess prompted G. B. Shaw to sneer that Dickens sometimes leaves the reader with a kind of literary indigestion, as if stuffed with "the gorgings and guzzlings which make Christmas our annual national disgrace."

I close with a gentle reminder that the holiday season calls for renewed attention not to the endless array of adaptations of Dickens on film but to the prose itself. Then and now (and probably in times to come) those singing and metaphor-laden pages elude the clumsy craft of image-making on the screen.. . and provoke the singular pictures and feelings in our imaginations.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


My friends and associates are already too well aware of my lifelong enthusiasm for and study of the life and works of the great German Romantic composer, Robert Schumann (1810-1856). This abiding passion has already resulted in a book-length biographical study, SCHUMANN: A CHORUS OF VOICES (2010) and a 17-part radio series for Public Radio, THE WORLD OF ROBERT SCHUMANN that spans more than thirty years of research and production.

Now it is time to bring Mr. Schumann to Hollywood.

I have just completed what might well be the last in my ongoing radio series, a program called "Schumann and the New World." Not only does it involve the fascination European artists had for performing opportunities in America at mid-19th century, the new eclecticism in American music that greeted these incursions, but Schumann's own involvement in the New World experience. Which is to say, many of his works reached American shores during his lifetime; and subsequently several biographical studies have likewise emanated from Hollywood and independent cinema sources. Chief among them is MGM's SONG OF LOVE (1947), directed by the inimitable Clarence Brown and starring Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henreid as Clara and Robert Schumann. Not to be forgotten is a marvelous performance here by the wonderfully wry Henry Daniell as Franz Liszt.

My new radio show pays ample tribute to this film and the undeservedly neglected genre of composer biopics. Chief among the guest commentators are cultural historian Albert Boime of UCLA; music historians Ted Albrecht, Bunker Clark and Robert Winter, of, respectively, Kent State, University of Kansas, and UCLA; and pianist Claude Frank. Maestro Frank provides his own "one-man show" at the keyboard in which he interprets the film's key scenes and music excerpts.

I write this in hopes that the much-maligned composer biopic--indeed, biopics in general--be given a closer look by many who seem disposed to dismiss them out of hand. I know there have been some Schumann entries since SONG OF LOVE, including, most notably a 1983 film from Germany, SPRING SYMPHONY, with Nastassia Kinski as Clara Wieck, and a bizarre piece of psycho-drama from actor Simon Callow and conductor Roger Norrington called THE SCHUMANN ENCOUNTER. The subject is hardly exhausted, and I anxiously await more entries.

As for my radio show, I will take it and excerpts from many pertinent films to WFMT Public Radio in Chicago at the end of January to devote a whole day to the subject of the composer biopic.

Monday, December 15, 2014


My two top films of 2014, Calvary and Mr. Turner, are not so different as would first seem. The first, about an embattled Irish priest in a rugged Irish village, and the second, about England’s most celebrated 19th century painter, display, in the long view, some striking similarities. Consider these men of woeful countenance: Father James Lavelle (Brendon Gleeson) spends his last days under the threat of murder from one of his disgruntled parishioners; painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) moves in his final weeks among critics and peers hostile to his late painterly styles. Both men, against personal and professional odds heroically cling to their ideals and after their deaths leave behind a spiritual and material legacy: Thanks to his compassion and wisdom, Lavelle’s parisioners receive unexpected gifts of humanity and grace; and thanks to Turner’s obstinate refusal to sell his paintings, the British public is able to view them in perpetuity in galleries and museums. Both men lead solitary lives against the sublime landscapes that surround them—the rugged seacoast village of County Sligo, on the one hand, and the sweeping hills, streams, and rivers of London. These are darkly comic worlds, as are the lives of two men committed to their calling. Under the direction of two likewise committed filmmakers, John Michael McDonagh and Mike Leigh, and the magnificent lensing of British cinematographers Larry Smith (Austenland) and Dick Pope (Nicholas Nickleby), these are films of humility and transcendence. Yet, I have yet to see either one of them among many of the “Top Ten” lists making the local rounds. Indeed, neither is likely to achieve a wide viewership during their theatrical runs in America. Perhaps, they will realize their own enduring legacy through the afterlife of video and streaming.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Pardon my probable bias here, but back in the 60s as a very impressionable reader, I fairly devoured The Hobbit and the Ring trilogy in the order in which they were written. As a result, I tend to regard the former as a prequel, a kind of fireside tale that cozily inducts us into the greater seriousness and scope of the Trilogy. And so it has remained to me. As C.S. Lewis noted in 1937, “The Hobbit will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later. . . will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true.”

But something has gone wrong in Jackson’s adaptations. The sprightly charm of Tolkien is replaced by a deadly serious tone and a riot of special effects, characters, and concussions. Why not accept the book’s more modest dimensions and charm on their own terms. . . rather than blasting them to smithereens, apparently in the service of pandering to a younger generation of LOTR fans who are presumed to ignore anything that doesn't smack of the outsized pretensions of the Trilogy? And who, if they even bother to check out the original The Hobbit, may find themselves disappointed (?), if not confused, by the different kind of tale they find in those pages.

The effect is like taking a folk tune and serving it up, dressed and basted into full-blown symphonic proportions. To further mix my metaphors, like firing it out of a cannon. Like what Aaron Copland did when he took his starkly impressive "Fanfare for the Common Man" and blew it up in his Third Symphony. Or like what Max Beerbohm said when he took Henry James’s verbosity to task when he charged him with "taking an elephant gun to a pea."

I will forever revere Jackson for what he did with his team of filmmakers in restoring the "Spider" sequence to the original King Kong. Now THERE was an act of respectful, even reverent homage to Willis O'Brien's film. But here, with the Hobbit films, I feel he has seriously gone off the rails.

Please, PLEASE, take The Hobbit films only for what they are. . . and reserve for yourself the more relatively modest, but wholly agreeable pleasures of Tolkien’s book.

Sunday, December 7, 2014



Directed by Morton Tyldum. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke.

It’s a matter of historical record that once the Bletchley code breakers cracked the secrets of the Nazi Enigma, they contrived to conceal their triumph. If it had been disclosed, the Germans might have changed the Code’s configuration, British intelligence would have been compromised, and the War Effort jeopardized. That’s right, victory was theirs; and now they had to deny it.

“Act as if you’ve never been there before,” is the famous mandate to NFL running backs otherwise bent on celebrating a touchdown.

What is it about Paradise Gained, that it must be lost again before it can be Regained? Aside from the defects of The Imitation Game’s wobbly melodrama and the compensatory virtues of its superb performances by Cumberbatch and Knightly, we are left with this sobering message. It resonates across the history of the arts. Was it not the French artist Roaul Dufy who painted with such facility that, in a fit of exasperation, he transferred the brush from his adept right hand to his more clumsy left? Did not the American watercolor master John Marin allow an accidental glob of water that had dripped down the center of one of his paintings to remain there, thereby ruining its perfection but fiercely proclaiming its imperfections as a water color? Or think of Charles Ives, who “subverted” the classical Lieder tradition with the brays and banter of crackerbarrel diction. And Lord Byron, who in the end discarded high-flying rhetorical excess for the rude vernacular of Don Juan. Or director Robert Bresson, who grew so dissatisfied with the practiced calculations of professional actors that he replaced them with the less studied, ”imperfect” performances of amateurs? Would that other filmmakers had backed off from their formal pursuits and disguised their artistry with flaws and mistakes! Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Tati, in my opinion, hermetically sealed themselves off from the scruffy old world of their youth and got lost in the maze-like film-machines of their so-called maturity. I would trade all of Tati’s Traffic and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon for, respectively, the messier but gloriously tentative cinema of Jour de Fete and Killer’s Kiss.

These are grand deceptions indeed. When artistry conceals itself, the greater the gain. These are works that hold us breathless, even though they breathe our very air.

Friday, December 5, 2014


I never knew that one day I would interview Harold Pinter, Franz Liszt, and Percy Shelley all in the same person. That’s British actor Julian Sands. Some may know him recently for television appearances in the series Dexter and Gotham, but I had the opportunity to talk with him about many of his other roles—on stage as playwright/poet Harold Pinter, on film as composer/pianist Franz Liszt and poet Percy Shelley.

As Harold Pinter, Sands gives a one-man stage show in which he recites and comments on Pinter and his poetry. This show, directed by Sands’s longtime friend, John Malkvich, benefits from Sands’s own association with Pinter, dating back to 2005, when the ailing Pinter worked with him on the genesis of the presentation. As Franz Liszt, Sands worked with director James Lapine in Impromptu, a serio-comic portrayal of Liszt and his friends, Chopin (Hugh Grant), George Sand (Judy Davis), and de Musset (Mandy Patinkin), who had gathered together for a wild weekend in the French countryside. As Shelley, Sands appeared in Ken Russell’s wildly phantasmagoric Gothic, in which he joined Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron and Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley.

Sands is a very agreeable and talkative interview subject. We spent about a half hour in conversation. He related amusing anecdotes about the hazards of negotiating the notorious speech inflections of Pinter’s rhetoric, the pianistic pantomimings of Liszt’s virtuoso pianism, and the day-to-day antics of Ken Russell on the set.

Sands is presently contemplating a new stage presentation in which he returns to poetry of Shelley.

My thanks to Emily Biermann of Johnson County Community College for the interview opportunity. Sands appears at that venue tonight (December 5) as part of a national tour.


A Commentary. Spoiler Alert.
Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Ramses.

Recipe for a miracle: A blow to the head, a near-death moment, a burning bush, the appearance of a young boy, a small pile of pebbles, and a few vagrant strains from Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold... And there you have it—the transformation of Moses from a former Prince of Egypt to the spiritual leader of the oppressed Israelites.

Ever since poet and critic Vachel Lindsay prophesied many years ago that this upstart film medium would lead a revolution of its own—establishing the secularization of religion—the movies have been torn between preaching sermons and miracles of special effects on the one hand, and, conversely, grounding the spiritual experience in material realities. Ironically, the more filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille pursued the first option, the more their stories strayed into sheer hokum; and the more filmmakers like Pasolini and Scorsese chose the latter path, the more potential was allowed for a more spiritual experience.

Exodus falls somewhere in between. Moses’ conversion, already cited, is a party of the first part. And the Red Sea episode, which grovels in special effects of falling meteors and twisting tornadoes, is a party of the second part. In between we have Christian Bale’s Moses. As a young man he is a stalwart Egyptian patriot with a strong vocal command; and as he grows older, he becomes more a vigilante equipped with a Batman whisper. That’s right, the Prince of Egypt gradually shape-shifts into the rebel Batman. If you don’t believe it, just listen to the transformation in his voice . . .

And what about that small boy who shows up periodically to cajole and argue with Moses about his role as leader of the Israelites? Is he an hallucination? Or just a bratty kid?

And what about those tablets known as the Ten Commandments? I waited breathlessly as the film wound its way toward its 2 ½ hour length. Come on, I muttered to myself. Time’s running out. But finally, there’s Moses, huddled before a block of stone, tapping away while muttering some more Batman-like growls with the kid. Just in time to pack away the tablets into a wagon as the Israelites light out for the territory.

By the way, about that child. . . The closing credits give him the name of “Malak” and he is played by young Isaac Andrews.

One last thing: About those closing credits. They go on and on, surely a record for running time. There are so many names here that I began to hallucinate, myself, wondering if the Lost Tribes of Israel had returned.

Thursday, December 4, 2014



Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, Christoph Walz as Walter Keane, Terence Stamp as John Canaday.

The “big eyes” phenomenon began in the late 1950s, when a number of paintings of little girls attracted popular attention due to their depictions of preternaturally big eyes. One Walter Keane racked in millions during the next decade, despite a thrashing from the New York Times critic, John Canaday (whose columns spanned the years 1959-1973), who declared, rightly enough, that they “pandered to the lowest common denominator of the American public.” To which Walter Keane stoutly declared, “And wasn’t this country founded on that?”

If the Keane paintings were frauds perpetrated on the public, so was their artist. It was not Walter but his wife, Margaret, who painted them. Out of fear that the public would not buy paintings by a woman—Georgia O’Keefe notwithstanding—Walter reasoned he should be recognized as the artist.

As one irony after another accumulates, it turns out that Walter himself was not an artist in any sense of the word. Fast-talking huckster, yes (is that a kind of American artist?); it was he who concocted the inspiration for these forlorn waifs was his contacts in post-war Europe with homeless children. That, along with the blessings of none other than Andy Warhol, was all the public needed to buy into these works. Poster reproductions of the paintings, and postcard reproductions of the reproductions, sold by the millions. Meanwhile, the paintings his wife had thought to be his—of Parisian streets—were themselves thefts of paintings by somebody else.

Walter’s ruse is maintained for almost a decade. Weary of keeping her secret, even from her daughter, Margaret tries to paint under her own name a series of tepid variations on the “Keane” paintings. Weak copies of her own “originals.” Finally, weary of it all, she leaves her husband, relocates to Hawaii, and confesses her true authorship of the “Keane” paintings on a Honolulu radio station. The press goes wild. There’s a trial. Margaret proves herself in a kind of “dueling painters” contest, in which she and Walter execute paintings in court. She comes up with another big-eyes waif; and he comes up only with an empty canvas.

SPOILER ALERT: Walter dies bitter and penniless, stoutly claiming to the end his authorship. Margaret continues on, painting to the end, eventually opening a gallery to the end.

Add Big Eyes to a recent spate of movies that contest the true authorship of famous paintings. Whereas several releases this year, Tim’s Vermeer and Art and Craft, dealt with world masterpieces by Vermeer, Picasso, and other world artists, Big Eyes is content to deal with the Keane paintings—dismal and vapid portraits by any standard. And so here is Tim Burton himself, content with this mildly satirical take on yet another con of the public. But is the “con” really on us, i.e., that we pay up to watch a feature-length movie about nothing more (or less) than a mediocre public stunt? We have to accept that we are a part of that public to which those paintings pander. Thus, as Walter Keane avers, we represent that lowest public taste that this country was founded on. Hooray for Hollywood.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


The year 2014 has given us several movies that are meditations on painters and painting. Penn and Teller’s Tim’s Vermeer, Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, Sam Cullman’s Art and Craft, and Tim Burton’ Big Eyes all explore how paintings are crafted and what they express. Tim’s Vermeer, Art and Craft, and Big Eyes, in particular, raise serious issues about authenticity, about the thin line that divides an original art work from a copy of that work.

I begin with Tim’s Vermeer, surely the most fascinating and thought-provoking of the bunch.

It was written and directed by Penn and Teller and chronicles the obsessive attempts by wealthy industrialist and Vermeer enthusiast Tim Jenison to render an exact copy of Vermeer’s classic painting, “The Music Lesson” (1662-1665).

Hop into your time machine and flash back to Paris in the mid-1850s. Should you find yourself in the crowded corridors of the Louvre, you’ll find dozens of young student painters with easels propped up before the works of the Masters. They are copying the paintings down to the smallest detail, painstakingly duplicating the composition and color down to every nuance of brush stroke. Perhaps, the reasoning goes, these students will not only successfully emulate the painterly achievement of the great artists, but in the process will be well on the road to an empathy and creativity all their own.

Now back in the present, meet the subject of Penn and Teller’s documentary film, Tim’s Vermeer. Tim Jenison is a wealthy Texas inventor, graphics designer, and entrepreneur of the revolutionary New Tek company. He’s not standing in the central nave of the Louvre but in the bleak confines of a San Antonio warehouse. Before him is “The Artist’s Studio,” a painting by the 17th century Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Like his 19th-century forebears, Tim is also attempting to make a copy. Unlike his brethren, however, he admits he is not a painter and lacks knowledge and experience of brush and pigment. “At night when I’m in bed,” he confesses, “all I can think about is this goal of painting a Vermeer. It will be remarkable if I can do it!”

Tim is a tinkerer and a problem solver. His fascination with Vermeer’s 1665 masterpiece owes little to the surpassing sublimity of Vermeer’s vision of a woman, her back to us, seated at the virginal (harpsichord), attended by a gentleman positioned at her right hand. He is more drawn (as it were) to its seemingly photographic detail and subtlety of light—qualities, he surmises, that can only have been achieved by somehow transferring to canvas the images captured by a camera. Now, we know little of the life and methods of the notoriously reclusive 17th century Dutch painter, who left behind no written records or student followers, but we can be sure he had no camera, analogic or digital. The daguerreotype technology is still two centuries away. But another camera was probably available to him and his contemporaries, a camera obscura (a device visualized in the motion picture Girl with a Pearl Earring). Tim is aware of recent speculations by the historian Philip Steadman and painter David Hockney to the effect that Vermeer did indeed, like his contemporaries, utilize optical devices, like lenses and mirrors in transferring images to canvas. Perhaps, Jenison wonders, Vermeer thought of himself and his technological apparatus as a kind of painterly machine. . . not unlike Tim himself.

Armed with wealth, mechanical ingenuity, incredible patience, and a lot of time on his hands, Tim Jenison embarks on a five-year project to prove that God-given artistic talent is not necessary to achieve what Vermeer did. Just deploy the same combination of lenses, mirrors and other 17th-century tools and you can make your own Vermeer—note the emphasis on building rather than painting—in a kind of super “paint-by-number” process that his friends, master magicians Penn and Teller, have documented in their film. Note that I emphasize the word “make.” When Tim proudly shows off the finished product now hanging on the wall of his bedroom, he radiates the pride of an engineer not a painter. We are understandably quick to note that what is on display, no matter how accurately rendered, is not a Vermeer. Or is it? We know the original is hanging in Buckingham Palace, safe from prying eyes; yet darned if it doesn’t appears to be the real thing, down to the smallest detail. Even the closest examination reveals the only differences are that the pigments are freshly applied, the surface is free of the cracks of age, and the signature is not Vermeer’s.

Yet... and yet, it achieves a strange empathy, if that’s the proper word, with Vermeer and his world. This point must be emphasized: Tim has not merely copied the painting, like the common practice of students and forgers alike, then and now. Rather, he has instead reconstructed the physical realities behind the painting, taken an inventory of the world that Vermeer had seen before him, and then rendered the experience on canvas. Like Vermeer, Tim paints directly from the three-dimensional setting, much as Vermeer himself had painted his subject. He has not copied Vermeer’s painting so much as he has channeled the experience of Vermeer himself while making the painting.

This is the real miracle of Tim’s achievement. By means of a three-dimensional computerized analysis of the dimensions of the setting of Vermeer’s own studio, Tim builds his own life-sized replica of Vermeer’s room. First he purchases an abandoned warehouse in San Antonio with the proper angle to the sun. He digitally analyzes and measures out the interior of the painting, realizes it as a three-dimensional setting, and populates it with the corresponding complement of furniture, objects, and figures. In his zeal for “authenticity,” he obtains the pertinent materials contemporary to Vermeer’s time, the wood, draperies, a harpsichord, floor tiles, a stained-glass window, etc. He calculates the exact match of the painting’s color palette to each object and fabric. And in a concession to family values, recruits his daughter to “stand in” for the woman at the harpsichord.

Then he turns to the process of the actual painting. He grinds his own pigments from scratch, just as Vermeer had done. He stretches his own canvas, made out of the same raw materials available to Vermeer. And—in what is the final master stroke—he sits down to a device he has fashioned that extends the theories of Hockney and Steadman. By the simple addition of a hand mirror held at an angle from the set, he is able to achieve an exact match on the canvas of its color and detail. Hour by hour, day by day, week and month for almost half a year, Tim labors away, surrendering to the tedium of working on each square inch of the canvas at a time, rendering with exactitude the reality before him, the very stitching of the draping, the intricate traceries of the harpsichord’s decorative embellishments, every pock mark on a jug. In this way he works inductively, from the inside out, from the specific detail to the general effect. No painter could have, or would have, worked that way. No matter. As I said, Tim is not a painter.

Tim’s obsessive quest takes a personal toll. We can enjoy at a safe distance the labors and frustrations of the day-to-day process (“Another day, more dots!”), his on-the-spot education in using a lathe and grinding the lenses and pigments, his visits to the obliging Hockney and Steadman, his lobbying in London of a very reluctant Queen Elizabeth for a private viewing of the original painting. At one point, after weeks and months of relentless labor, an exhausted Jenison addresses the camera and admits,” If this weren’t a movie, I’d probably quit!” Say what you will about Jenison’s lack of painterly skills, his eye-hand coordination is extraordinary. No matter how much the technology of optics and carpentry comes to his aid, he has deliberately avoided simply taking a picture of his re-created set; and instead he has gone back to the tedium of pigment and brush and application. Technology simply provides the tools. The actual application is left to the eye and hand.

It’s a remarkable achievement on all counts. And Tim’s Vermeer is no less a remarkable and endlessly fascinating chronicle of the process. I should add that the viewing experience is not for the faint of heart: One must apply lots of patience to fully savor Tim’s journey.

That Penn and Teller are documenting it all is entirely appropriate. We have observed the peculiarly deconstructive genius of their career, i.e., their simultaneous disclosure of the machinery behind their illusions and the mysteries that survive those illusions. They juggle in full view their secrets and revelations, challenging and confounding us at the same time. And now with characteristic irony and empathy—and the able assist of composer Conrad Pope’s obsessively repetitive soundtrack score—they preside over Tim’s project.

Tilt your imagination a bit. Tim’s simulacrum of three-and-two-dimensional worlds becomes a reality in itself, a ghost in the machine, a state of being in which Tim can join Vermeer in a stroll through 17th-century Delft. I expect to see Vermeer himself—is he the figure standing to the right of the harpsichord?—turning around to regarding us with a speculative glance—an invitation—of his own.

Perhaps he is sizing us up as his next subject.