Tim's Vermeer (2013) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some strong language
Running Time: 80 min.
Cast: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull, Colin Blakemore, David Hockney, Philip Steadman, Teller
Review published March 2, 2014
Tim's Vermeer is a documentary by the comedy/magician/documentarian duo of Penn & Teller, who have decided to make a testament to a great, perhaps potentially quixotic, feat of discovery, not only of one of the great mysteries in art (Philip Steadman, who appears in the film, tried to decode the theory that Vermeer employed the use of a "camera obscura" in his 2002 book, "Vermeer's Camera"), but one of self discovery, by filming one of their friends and his great obsession to prove a "thing" for no other reason than insatiable curiosity.
Their subject: Tim Jenison, a very successful computer graphics engineer and tech inventor from San Antonio, Texas, who has been obsessed with how famous 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer could create at least thirty-four pieces of art so realistic, with a command of the use of light that was far ahead of its time, and so advanced that his work looks almost as real as a photograph. Jenison takes us through what happens to be eight long years researching possibilities, taking him to a conclusion that somehow Vermeer must be using a mix of his own skill and technology, in the form of a mirror reflection process that allowed him to compare what he sees on the canvas with that which can be seen with the naked eye, and match it exactly.
Though the level to which Jenison takes his obsession is something only an engineer might fully appreciate, this study is a fascinating one in not only how great art once may have been made, but in one man's personal obsession to prove a point, not only to himself, but to the art history world as a whole. Jenison, who has never painted in his life, attempts to recreate a Vermeer using his process, and his perseverance and ability to convincingly do so are nothing short of remarkable. And not only does it impress us neophytes, but it also gains the interest of some experts in the art realm.
But this isn't just about one guy who uses some computer software to recreate a three-centuries old painting like "The Music Lesson". This is about a man who meticulously recreates an entire room, even learning Dutch and traveling to the Netherlands to the very place that Vermeer made some of his most famous paintings, with the intention and determination to build a near-exact, life-size replica, including the wardrobe and furniture, in order to use to recreate every inch in meticulous detail using what Tim feels is Vermeer's exact process. And he makes it all himself, with no prior knowledge on how to make clothing or furniture.
Tim's Vermeer is directed by Teller, who does a magnificent job not only making what could have been a dry and tech-jargon heavy subject easy to understand, but he packages it all with a fun, vibrant tone that keeps the relatively serious undertaking not only funny, but occasionally touching and poignant as well. His partner, Penn Jillette, provides the on-screen commentary and narration with his usual verve and welcome energy.
Their involvement will not be a surprise to anyone who has followed their expletive-titled 'myth-busting' show on Showtime from 2003 until 2010, where they have made a pocket career exposing fraud and debunking commonly-held beliefs persistently, which they employ to a good extent here, getting down to the bottom of a process that has no documentation or concrete explanation. Bolstered by a snazzy score by Conrad Pope (My Week with Marilyn, The Presence), along with what must have been demanding camera work to show how the mirror accurately reflects the image to the painted canvas by Shane F. Kelly (Older Than America, Urbania), the specs are top notch.
Although Tim Jenison may convince many about how a visionary like Vermeer could create masterpieces while (perhaps) using the help of a tool in order to trace images, and the fact that he is nearly replicated by someone who had little to no background in painting, doesn't take away how much time and effort went in to creating examples of the world's best art that has inspired millions over the centuries, even if it was far from appreciated in his own lifetime.
Though the experiment is benign in execution, as Jenison adores Vermeer with a passion rare outside of those involved in the occupation of art, it could likely spark the equivalent of a firestorm of discussion in the art community that may be without end, including the notion that Vermeer might lose some esteem if anyone with means and determination can paint just like him using simple tools and no previous experience. But that's another documentary for another day.
Yet, regardless of whether you feel about the genius of artists (or lack thereof), and as impressive as novice Jenison's feat in recreating a masterpiece is, it is Penn and Teller who prove to be master craftsmen as filmmakers in what turns out to be one of the most fascinating and entertaining films of the year of any variety.
©2014 Vince Leo