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Capone Art-House Round-Up with TIM'S VERMEER, CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915, and IN NO GREAT HURRY!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

As the title might suggest, the documentary TIM'S VERMEER is about two individuals: one is quite famous and long dead, and the other is Tim Jenison, the Texan who made roughly a gazillion dollars creating post-production video tools and visual imaging software. So what else would a man who has more money than God and nothing but time on his hands have as his hobby? To figure out how the 17th century artist Johannes Vermeer was able to make photo-realistic paintings 150 years before photography was invented. And I feel confident that Jenison does exactly that to the point where he may have inadvertently proven that Vermeer wasn't a "painter" at all, by the strictest definition of the word.

After years of research, invention and experimentation, Jenison created a device that I couldn't begin to explain, but it's something of a combination of a box camera and an elaborate system of mirrors that makes it possible to render any real image in front of the artist into a flawless reproduction on a canvas. Rather than simply try to re-create one of Vermeer's actual paintings, Jenison spent months in Delft, Holland (where Vermeer's studio was) recreating Vermeer's workplace and the objects in the studio down to the tile on the floor, the woodwork and the patterns on every stitch of clothing his models would wear. Even the way the light came into the room was reproduced. And then he spent the next year painting his own Vermeer painting line by tedious line, discovering in the process imperfections in Vermeer's original that had never been noticed and practically proved his theory.

TIM'S VERMEER is narrated by Penn Jillette, which may seem a slightly odd choice until you realize that the film's director is his partner in magic and crime Teller. Lest you think the film is some elaborate joke or hoax, it most certainly is not. The film took eight years to make and features Jenison seeking out the advice and verification of his methods and results from art scholars around the world. Even skeptics are forced to question what they've believed their entire lives.

Whether it was Teller's intention or not, the film transitions back and forth from a film about an artist's techniques to a case study of a man obsessed. If Jenison had never come up with this device that can transform someone like him, who had never picked up a paintbrush in his life, into someone of Vermeer's caliber, I believe he would have gone slowly insane with frustration. But when you see him after hundreds of days in a row attempting to reproduce the thread pattern in a piece of cloth for his painting, you realize he's possessed by both his love of art and the spirit of creativity—a force that has clearly driven him his entire life. TIM'S VERMEER is a sometimes startlingly great doc that brings you inside the mind and behind the eyes of two geniuses that somehow ended up at the same place hundreds of years apart.

Sometimes you just watch a movie to behold what an actor does best. In the case of CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915, the latest from director Bruno Dumont (HUMANITÉ), we watch it to see Juliette Binoche in an almost constant state of mental anguish as the title character, the lover and student of the French scultor Auguste Rodin, and by all accounts an accomplished sculptor herself. For reasons that aren't explained in the film (because they aren't what this work is about), we learn that Camille's family had her committed to an mental hospital for most of her natural life. She believes it was Rodin's jealousy of her work that got her placed there, but there are plenty of indications that paranoia, depression and other ailments of mind were the reasons. The real question is, did those conditions set upon her brain before or after being committed.

There is no real story to CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915; it's more of a slice-of-life piece that covers the few days leading up to her brother, poet Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), visiting her in the asylum. A devout Catholic, Paul delivers a sermon of sorts to a priest before visiting Camille in which he makes it clear that her insanity is a way for God to test her and the family, so that portions of their minds will be opened further to the holy spirit.

(If you're looking for more of a complete biography of this character, I would highly recommend 1988's magnificent, Oscar-nominated CAMILLE CLAUDEL, from director Bruno Nuytten and starring Isabelle Adjani as Camille and Gérard Depardieu as Rodin.)

But most of the film consists of Binoche examining her conditions in the institution, surrounded by people who truly belong in such a place for their own safety (many played by real mental patients, a fact that did not sit well with some on the festival circuit and in markets where the film has opened already). The film certainly does not exploit these people, but the way Camille talks about and to them at times makes certain scenes in the film beyond uncomfortable, which I guarantee was Dumont's intention. The film observes Camille going through her daily routines of being bathed, making her own food (she feared being poisoned), attending church, and standing in a corner sobbing uncontrollably on a regular basis.

The film reaches its emotional pinnacle when brother and sister finally do come together in the film's final scene, and it's as if they pick up a conversation that left off minutes earlier. He spouts of religious rhetoric, while she breaks down into a rant about coming home and Rodin's crimes against her heart and mind. And while there is talk about her leaving the facility, we can tell from Paul's reactions to her that this will never happen.

Not surprisingly, Binoche is more than up to the task of playing such a person, but even as I almost take for granted her abilities, she floored me with this performance, floating violently from defiance to sorrow to surrender. CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915 is not a film meant to make you feel better by the end; you certainly won't. But how can watching an actor so completely lose herself in a character not give you a kind of charge?

As something of an addendum to the recent documentary on street photographers, EVERYBODY STREET, comes the 2012 release IN NO GREAT HURRY about the great Saul Leiter, whose work dates back to the 1950s and includes some truly inventive fashion-based work for Harper's Bazaar, as well as some stunning early color photography that made the everyday seem to pop and amaze. UK-based filmmaker Tomas Leach gets intimate access to Leiter, spending a great deal of time simply listening to the self-effacing artist (who passed away in November 2013) sit in the living room of his apartment and talk endlessly about all manner of subjects—most often trying to convince the filmmaker that he was not worthy to the be the subject of a film.

Leiter is just as interesting when talking cynically about subjects unrelated directly to art as he is attempting to discuss his style and what he saw or liked about a particular subject or group of images he took. The films also gives a look at a great deal of his largely unseen work as a painter. Some of the most devastating moments involve Leiter going through one room that seems to be devoted to housing the personal belongings of one of his dearest female friends.

If for no other reason, IN NO GREAT HURRY (subtitled 13 LESSONS IN LIFE WITH SAUL LEITER) is a valuable asset because it collects so much of the great photographer's works in one place and exposes his importance and influence to an audience likely unfamiliar with him. As much as Leiter himself would like to be seen as curmudgeonly, with director Leach's help, he reveals himself to be a warm, darkly funny and ultimately embracing man whose eye for the extraordinary ordinary was unrivaled.

-- Steve Prokopy
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