“Tim’s Vermeer” is something that Mark Twain could have
It applies a hard-headed empirical reality check in the spirit of Benjamin Franklin or Thomas
Edison to the theory that the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used technology
(lenses) to arrive at a precision that could not have been achieved with his
We get a respectable painting and a clever movie out of this
gambit. And we get a quirky look into the mind of an inventor, Tim Jenison, in
the directorial feature debut of Teller, produced by his comedy and performance
partner, Penn Gillette.
“Tim’s Vermeer” is a technological twist on the how-to (or
how-not-to) first-person doc approach of “Super-Size Me.” Jenison is an
inventor in San Antonio, Texas, whose creations include the NewTek firm, the
videotoaster, an airplane made entirely from elements that he bought at
WalMart, and a lip-synching duck. And he’s got a wit along with that tech
whimsy. This is not your ordinary tech-nerd.
Tim got wind of the theory that Vermeer used technical help
when painting his works, especially the late ones where Vermeer creates an
extraordinarily soft mood and tone, and a precision that draws your eye into
what seems an infinity of invention. It’s a notion that has been around the art
world for some two decades, promoted by the painter David Hockney and, among
others, the journalist Lawrence Weschler.
Preposterous and heretical at first, it seemed to have a
logic on closer examination. It also threatened to sabotage Vermeer’s
reputation, if it showed that “all” the artist did was trace a reflected
composition that had been projected by a camera obscura — a series of reflections – onto a surface.
But it had not been tried as an experiment. Could anybody be a Vermeer? Even a
tech guy in, of all places, Texas?
By the time Jenison went to his friend Penn — in Las Vegas,
another unlikely place for a revolution in art — he was ready for the
challenge. Penn would produce the film, shot on three HD cameras which Tim
would activate. Teller would direct.
The doc, distilled from 250 hours of footage into a
watchable journey, even if Tim is sitting down most of the time, is a
thoroughly American story of triumph through imagination, hard work and
commitment. Tim paints “The Music Lesson” by Vermeer — or, we should say, he
traces it — over the course of a grueling seven months.
In preparation, Tim, a prodigious organist, taught himself
to paint, and he taught himself Dutch. This kind of dedication is indication
enough that his experiment proves that not anyone can paint a Vermeer.
“Tim’s Vermeer” does show that someone with super-human focus
can replicate the effects that Vermeer achieved. You can see the affinities
that his work has with Penn and Teller’s, as Penn interlocutes like a carnival barker, this time not seeking to hide the mechanics of
magic tricks, but rather trying to make the viewer notice the trick as it’s revealed.
Before you see “Tim’s Vermeer” as a new Wizard of Oz, pulling
back the curtain and exposing the emperor for the naked impostor that he might
be, remember the doc doesn’t prove that Vermeer painted this way, only
that a painting can be made (or remade) in the style in which some think
Vermeer painted. The star is Jenison, the extraordinary ordinary hobbyist who
made it happen.
And Vermeer should be judged by his creations, not by the
road that got him there.
Lest we turn Tim’s achievement into a nuts-and-bolts show-me
parable, unfunded by tax dollars, that some Tea Party purist might celebrate,
remember that the crucial ingredient in Jenison’s seemingly quixotic project is
a free spirit. That’s what fuels invention
as much as anything else.
“Tim’s Vermeer” plays like magic with a film audience, which
doesn’t need advanced degrees to warm to Vermeer or Tim Jenison. Watch for
awards in this doc season.