Penn & Teller are generally known for their magic tricks and prankish energy, but “Tim’s Vermeer” — a documentary directed by Teller and produced by Penn Jillette — stands apart from the rest of their oeuvre. A spirited look at the quest of an eccentric entrepreneur intent on uncovering the cryptic technique of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, “Tim’s Vermeer” plays less like the sort of exposé of trickery one might expect of Penn & Teller and instead focuses on the nature of desiring answers to unsolvable mysteries.
At its center is middle aged technologist Tim Jenison, the owner of a successful computer graphics company obsessed with Vermeer’s art. Having read David Hockney’s controversial tome “Secret Knowledge,” which argues that Vermeer used a camera obscura to trace a projection of real images as a means of explaining the painter’s extraordinary attentiveness to the behavior of light, Jenison can’t stop thinking about ways to prove the theory. As Jillette explains in a running voiceover (and occasionally, somewhat distractingly, on camera), the ruminative Jenison has the money and time to follow his passions, and the movie documents how this remarkable mind managed to probe the Vermeer question so thoroughly that he might just have cracked it.
The first indications that Jenison has made progress in his investigation arrive when the inventor devises an apparatus that holds a mirror and allows him to ostensibly paint-by-the-numbers off a reflection. (It’s the sort of thing that could really impress at parties.) While he has no painting experience, in five hours, Jenison is able to replicate a photograph in incredible detail. The result further deepens the allure of Jenison’s quest, pushing beyond the possibility that the bearded braniac is merely lost in a swirl of crackpot theories. Once Jenison decides to recreate Vermeer’s iconic “The Music Lesson,” building a full scale reproduction of the image in his warehouse and spending months agonizing over the process, it’s easy to get swept up in his low-stakes but certainly fascinating quest.
Teller’s rough, uncomplicated filmmaking style does little to elaborate on Jenison’s story, as the subject’s unending curiosity singlehandedly carries each scene. On the whole, the lightweight style often feels like an episode of Penn & Teller’s old Showtime series “Bullshit” without the fierce polemics. Yet that’s beside the point given how the mystery lingers throughout. Jenison constructs a compelling argument for Vermeer’s undocumented method, and if he’s correct, it implies that Vermeer’s art is essentially a form of 17th century photography. Jenison’s infectious enthusiasm makes the prospects of this discovery worth following even for those not well-versed in fine art.
“Why is this not cheating?” Jenison wonders rhetorically, as he contemplates the mirror’s ability to guide his brush. It’s a question that might have been better stated by an actual critical voice, which “Tim’s Vermeer” lacks despite the scholarly debate associated with its theory. The movie starts a dialogue on Vermeer’s work that begs to continue — if not in another movie, than in the conversation surrounding the events depicted in this one.
Experientially, “Tim’s Vermeer” is surface deep; no great work of cinematic showmanship about the creative process a la Orson Welles’ seminal diary film “F for Fake,” it nevertheless teases out an provocative dialogue about the nature of creativity and the tenuous distinction between inventors and artists. The amusing effect of watching Jenison’s increasing exasperation as he nears the finish line with his Vermeer recreation make the journey worthwhile. Whether or not Jenison becomes an artist in the process of his quest, there’s no doubting that his commitment to creating art is a creative end unto itself.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics unveiled “Tim’s Vermeer” in Telluride ahead of bookings in Toronto and New York. Interest in Jenison’s achievements and a crossover appeal to the fine art crowd should propel it toward respectable nationwide business over the next several weeks.