The Unknown Known Vermeer

The Unknown Known

What do we want from Donald Rumsfeld? Or Robert McNamara, or the rank-and-file soldiers of Abu Ghraib in Standard Operating Procedure? (Or, for that matter, Fred “Mr. Death” Leuchter?) Errol Morris’s portraits of perpetrators tend to be determined by his taste for weird personal systems of logic—Morris’s interest lies in faithfully teasing out a tunnel-vision worldview, not in eliciting repentance or accountability. In Tabloid, it’s funny to see through the eyes of a loon, but in Morris’s new chronicle of Rumsfeld’s career according to Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, the humor can wear thin, because this particular worldview affected millions. The infamous Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush gets the Morris treatment through head-on interviews (punctuated with selectively included back-of-the-room questions from the filmmaker) and other visual elements: chiefly, Rumsfeld’s persnickety memos as Secretary of Defense, but also press conferences, grainy footage of world events, and a couple of simply rendered visual motifs (e.g., the ocean… of possibility).

Rumsfeld’s cynicism and shrewdness are on display, as ever, though the film’s content will not blindside anyone who paid attention to the news under the Bush administration. Morris is capable of getting more out of his subject (or maybe not, judging from a couple of Rumsfeld’s dismissals and refusals), and he at times seems disarmed by Rumsfeld’s stonewalling and self-contradictions, or disarmed by his own amusement at them. To a certain extent, as in SOP, the filmmaker’s inquisitive nature gets him stuck on hermeneutics, yet without going into depth (perhaps the film's chronicle of Rumsfeld's lengthy political career takes up too much time). But one thing is certain: the film reinforces the eternal point that one of the biggest weapons in war is language.

Tim's Vermeer Penn and Teller

Tim's Vermeer

Tim’s Vermeer, from the magician-and-debunker duo Penn & Teller, is another documentary that holds interest because of its blind spots. Directed by Teller and narrated by Penn, the film chronicles millionaire inventor Tim Jenison’s attempt to prove the theory that Johannes Vermeer used optics to create his pellucidly pretty paintings. Jenison does so by reverse-engineering Vermeer’s lost techniques, through the casually brilliant trial-and-error of a master innovator; reconstructing Vermeer’s The Music Lesson as a kind of movie set, he then paints what’s in front of him with the help of a mirror. Jenison’s obsessiveness and comic timing are entertaining, as is his fixation on the idea that art can be fabricated through perfectly rational and replicable methods. It’s partly just a story of a rich, bright man exerting the full force of his abilities and resources upon a slippery dream.

But what’s fascinating is how Penn & Teller, who ordinarily play the skeptic, accept the premise that Vermeer’s technique was a glorified form of copying. (David Hockney and Philip Steadman, who both wrote books postulating Vermeer’s use of devices such as a camera obscura, do appear, in sequences that are somewhat selectively edited.) The film’s fallacies about art open up just as many philosophical issues as Jenison’s technical experiments do. And, following mainstream documentary convention, Jenison’s endeavor is proclaimed as exceptional—but what about forgers? Regardless, Tim’s Vermeer unfolds in such an eager spirit of experiment that the questions it raises, willfully and otherwise, are fruitful and stimulating.