“Imagine that you are a member of a tour visiting Greece. The group goes to the Parthenon. It is a bore. Few people even bother to look—it looked better in the brochure. So people take half a look, mostly take pictures, remark on the serious erosion by acid rain. You are puzzled. Why should one of the glories and fonts of Western civilization, viewed under pleasant conditions—good weather, good hotel room, good food, good guide—be a bore?
“Now imagine under what set of circumstances a viewing of the Parthenon would not be a bore. For example, you are a NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet assault. You are in a bunker in downtown Athens, binoculars propped on sandbags. It is dawn. A medium-range missile attack is under way. Half a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches the portico.
“Are you bored? Can you see the Parthenon?
—Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos, 1983
Scarlett Johansson! Oh, to be an actress worthy of a starring role in a film about a servant girl who is deemed worthy of a sitting role in a painting! And in the painting she gets to look at the painter, and by extension, the viewer! Oh Narcissus! Oh bliss!
You don’t get the sense, watching Girl With a Pearl Earring, that Colin Firth can really paint, or that he can do anything other than brood and look pouty in this quiet film with only two locations: the studio and the outside canal set that, no matter how many angles it is shot from, clearly reveals itself to be the same place each time. Dutch painters in Delft may have led claustrophobic lives, but this borders on the pathological.
The film posits the poor housemaid Griet as the subject of the famous painting in question. Historically speaking, this is the least likely of the three most prominent theories. But the first two are, naturally, so quotidian and predictable—so obvious and so plausibly ploddingly likely to be true, that we simply find them unacceptable.
The most likely explanation is that the girl is either Vermeer’s own daughter or the daughter of a patron. But the modern sensibility rebels against this and implicitly asks, “Without some inner psychosexual demon tormenting him, how can Vermeer have been such a genius?” One is reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s comment on Shakespeare’s originality: “Shakespeare was quite himself; it was only his critics who found him to be someone else.”
In that same sadly predictable way, the novel and film demand our assent to the currently fashionable dogma that ordinary men are simply incapable of producing extraordinary art. For without the secret possibility of moral scandal, Vermeer borders dangerously close to not only being a heterosexual European, but a dead white male at that. This will not do.
With the tools and techniques of digital cinema, directors can now “paint” precisely the light and tone they wish into each scene without the agony of cutting off their ear or budget. An amateur can now accomplish in mere moments, digitally, essentially the same effect that Vincent Van Gogh suffered for years to accomplish manually, which is accurately and effectively to show light’s reflection on each aspect of your chosen scene.
In Girl With a Pearl Earring, the result is a breathtaking visual anachronism: on screen, you realize that what you’re watching is not actually a film, it is a series of incredibly beautiful still life paintings. The complication is that, under the conditions of moviegoing, looking at such a still life is—to use the most precise simile—just as stimulating as watching paint dry. It is like going to the Met via the movies. And yet . . .
In one scene, the film has Vermeer making use of a camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”), the perception device whose hotly contested origin is most frequently attributed to the mid-sixteenth century Italian Giovanni Battista. A dark box or room with a small hole in one end allowing an inverted image to be seen on the opposite wall, it is considered the very first lens to aid both in visual perception and the subsequent making of two-dimensional images.
While it is known that Vermeer did use one, the film, in its invocation of the camera obscura, slyly shows us the history of the camera lens. We see lifelike images that show us the history of lifelike images, and for a moment we realize how much work it takes.
As Lev Manovich has Svetlana Alpers describe it, painting of Vermeer’s type “functioned as both map and picture, combining different kinds of information and knowledge of the world.” So the film goes meta by showing the manufacturing of images that are themselves instructional on the manufacturing of images.
And so by the end of it, you see, finally, that this is an important picture. This was an important painter by whom an important portrait was made, from which an important novel was inspired, through which an important film was created, all so that you—jaded, overmediated, bored, disinterested—whatever!—the exasperated viewer could, finally, at long last, actually understand just how much superhuman labor has been put into the cause of getting your electronically saturated eyeballs, just for a few minutes, to actually see the painting.
In other words, it’s a movie about which you can legitimately say, “The poster was much better.”
The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, by Svetlana Alpers