The Secret History of Vermeer: An Appreciation of Peter Thompson’s Films

By Jeff Jackson and Ross Wilbanks 

Peter Thompson has been called one of American cinema's best-kept secrets and the country’s greatest unknown filmmaker. His provocative essay films mix documentary, dream, and fiction to create something unclassifiable. His short feature Lowlands recounts the little-known story of Vermeer’s wife and the shocking historical context in which the Dutch master painted his serene masterworks. It also links this story with pressing issues from our own era. For anyone interested in Vermeer and the history of art, Lowlands offers a revelatory journey. 

Trailer for Lowlands (2009) by Peter Thompson

Thompson only made six films before he passed away in 2013, but each one holds a unique place in cinema. The National Media Museum calls his work "a unique hybrid of intense, intelligent research and sensitively delicate poetic imagery, drifting between chronological and geographical zones, historical incident and artistic creation. They represent must-see viewing.”  

Legendary film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is a longtime champion of Peter Thompson’s work. He makes the case for his importance in the article “Introduction to an Unknown Filmmaker” and outlines his unusual personal history: “What makes it especially difficult to describe Peter’s work is that, like most major filmmakers – like Chaplin, Dreyer, and Bresson, for instance – he reinvents cinema for his own purposes. It derives from diverse aspects of his background: as a classical guitarist who studied with Andrès Segovia, as an undergraduate and graduate student in comparative literature, as a onetime Navy photojournalist and photography curator, and even as a first cousin of the special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull. No less pertinent is the fact that even though his themes are monumental and tragic, his films are quiet meditations resembling detective stories, not so much unemotional as distillations of emotion, poetically and musically inflected.” 

Rosenbaum was the main film critic for the Chicago Reader for over 20 years and writes for many of the leading film journals. He is the author of thirteen books including the cult classic Midnight Movies (with J. Hoberman). His most recent publication is Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephila (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

New Frequencies film curator Ross Wilbanks spoke briefly with Rosenbaum about Thompson’s work, which will be featured in a New Frequencies at McColl Center program on Tuesday, March 22 at 8 PM. [Buy tickets here.]

You've stated in all your years as a critic you've never seen anything like Peter Thompson’s work, that there was no school he came from. What are the qualities of Thompson's film that strike you as original?

Jonathan Rosenbaum: A musical conception of narration in terms of both composition and delivery/performance; an aptitude for combining subjects and concerns that wouldn't ordinarily or obviously go together; a foregrounding of dreams that gives them as much status as the facts of our waking lives; a juxtaposition of the materials and methods of both photography and poetry; a profound interest in the sort of domestic underpinnings of our lives that are often ignored. This list is by no means exhaustive.

Why do you think Thompson’s work isn’t better known?

His talent was for filmmaking, not self-promotion. It's more or less the same reason why Spike Lee is much better known than Charles Burnett.

In Lowlands, do you know what drew Thompson to the story of Vermeer and his wife?
I think his concern with Vermeer's wife had a lot to do with his feelings for and about his wife, Mary Dougherty.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1662-1665, oil on canvas, 16 3/4 x 15 in. (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

What was Thompson’s process for putting together his films? Did he have a particular way of working and stitching together a story?

I don't know any more than what he expressed to me in his interviews, but I think his compulsive revising of his scripts was obviously crucial. [Editor’s Note: Here is Thompson’s comment from one of those interviews: “I’m an admirer of the style blanc practiced by the Polish post-war poets Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Wislawa Szymborska. They write ‘transparently’ with zero extra words and very few adjectives. To shrink downward to that blessed state, I write an embarrassingly large number of drafts because it takes me a while to recognize one word too many.”]


New Frequencies at McColl Center presents Films by Peter Thompson on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at 8 PM. Limited seating. Advance tickets are available now.

Ross Wilbanks is a filmmaker, musician, and film curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, and curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.