Movie Reviews
7:03 pm
Thu December 5, 2013

Behind Great Art, The Artist's Painstaking Process

Originally published on Sat December 7, 2013 6:33 pm

Stephen Sondheim has written quite a few classic musicals — Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods — but he's had just one hit song, "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music. And, as he tells an audience in Six by Sondheim, it was a tricky one to write because the star who had to sing it, Glynis Johns, wasn't a singer with a capital "s."

"She had a lovely, sweet, bell-like voice, which was breathy and short-winded," Sondheim says. "So it's written in short phrases. ... It's not hard to sing."

Countless backstage stories, culled mostly from interviews and archival footage, are assembled in Six by Sondheim into the story of a life — and a life's work. You'll hear what the grand master of the American musical learned from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, and what he learned on the job with West Side Story, where his first professional lyrics were seriously overshadowed by Leonard Bernstein's music — at least in the eyes of critics.

Live and learn. And learn you will watching Six by Sondheim — a biographical sketch as master class. It's running in select cities this weekend, and on HBO Monday night.

Tim's Vermeer also centers on a single artist, except he's not an artist. He's an inventor. As a pioneer of desktop video software, Tim Jenison knows visuals, but he had never so much as held a paintbrush when he decided to try to paint the way the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer did in some of the most exquisite oil paintings ever.

Jenison had read that the Renaissance masters probably used, in their work, some of the tools that would eventually lead, centuries later, to photography — lenses and mirrors. And that intrigued him.

Jenison tries the technique, using an old black-and-white photo as source material. As he dabs gray paint on masonite, blobs slowly become cheeks, and finally the camera pulls back and you see what he has painted. I've watched the film three times now, and all three times the audience has gasped. It is the black-and-white photo, in oil. Astonishing. And that's just the start.

Director Teller, best known as the silent half of the magic team Penn and Teller, whisks you through all kinds of complicated concepts, but his narrative is crystal clear as Jenison proceeds from this first test to building a copy of Vermeer's studio in a Texas warehouse. There, he'll reconstruct the room Vermeer painted in The Music Lesson — harpsichord, chair, stained glass windows. The process of putting those three-dimensional objects on canvas in natural light is so fascinating that no one's going to make jokes about watching paint dry — though at one point the film is literally about watching paint dry. And then applying varnish.

As with Six by Sondheim, Tim's Vermeer works at capturing on film how artists work their miracles. And it will have you, long after the credits fade, puzzling out questions of invention, creativity, science, talent, painstaking craft, and the magic that comes of putting all that together. (Recommended)

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