“Tim’s Vermeer” is a beautiful documentary, winningly compact at only 80 minutes, about an artist’s labor of love. It is
also about an endearing technological genius, inventor Tim Jenison, and his insistence
that art and technology are closer than they appear.
Directed by Teller (the quieter half of famed magician duo
Penn & Teller), “Tim’s Vermeer” follows Jenison’s self-imposed mission of
unlocking the secret behind the photo-realism in Johannes Vermeer’s paintings —
and, in the process, painting his own Vermeer as a means of proving that the 17th
century artist may have used a certain device to achieve his masterworks. This
device, Jenison posits, is a combination of the camera obscura, which projects
an image on to a canvas, plus a 45-degree mirror to mimic brightness.
Having proved the effectiveness of his invention on smaller
projects, Jenison sets out to recreate Vermeer’s Delft room in a studio in San
Antonio, complete with period appropriate restraints (he grinds his own paint pigments
and crafts special lenses). He then
spends 130 days making his painting, a replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.”
This is captured wonderfully in the film — Tim’s
backbreaking dedication, his meticulousness, and his bleary-eyed will to push
though to the painting’s completion, despite getting caught up in a two-week
time warp of painting dots on a certain section of the painting. Really, he
only paints dots for days on end.
“Tim’s Vermeer” opens theatrically January 31, 2014, via Sony
Beth Hanna: I love how process
oriented this film is. We really feel the 130 days it took Tim to paint his
Vermeer. Was it a strenuous film to shoot?
Teller: The digital video revolution has been very helpful to us. As
Tim was painting, for example, every morning he would come in, and set up the lights,
and set up the cameras. Tim had five cameras on the painting at one time, so we’d
always have what was happening on the canvas, what was going on from enough
distance to see the painting, close-ups and various things like that. Tim would
set that stuff up, and I would generally be in Las Vegas. At the end of the
day, our producer and Tim would Skype together. The painting process was
essentially covered in that almost diary-like, autobiographical way.
Where I was valued in the movie was figuring out what the
story was. I think I had the first glimmers that this wasn’t a film about
Vermeer, it wasn’t about technology. It was about Tim as an extraordinary
What seems to be a simple story is not a simple story to
tell. Because the audience has to know all these little odd things along the
way that pretty much nobody knows. What [David] Hockney’s book is about, what a
camera obscura is, and then to understand the principle of Tim’s device, the
business about the human retina. That was a key thing: That Vermeer was doing
something in his paintings that the unaided eye cannot do. To measure and copy
brightness — the human eye can’t do that. But all these little things then
became subordinate to Tim’s character and the story of making the painting.
At certain points Tim
expresses how tired he is, that the film is the only thing keeping him
returning back to the painting. Was there ever a genuine concern he wouldn’t
[Laughs] No. We knew that he would try to the nth degree to
do this. We did not know that he would succeed, by any means. When we first saw
Tim’s demo, we were all very confident that his method would work. But because
Tim is such a hard-ass on himself, scientifically, when he saw the original
painting in Buckingham palace, he really was shaken. Quite shaken, because he
knew that in that darkened room he would not be able to get that level of
detail [in his own painting].
There was a moment where Tim said, “I don’t know if I can do
this.” Remember part of that great conversation I had with him that opens the
movie: I said, “Are you going to succeed?” And he said, “If I don’t succeed, I
guess there won’t be a movie.” And I turned to him and said, “Oh no, there will
still be a movie.” But it will be different. I think those words ringing in
Tim’s ear made him think that he really didn’t
want to fail on this project.
You shot 2400 hours
of footage. Were there any juicy things you had to leave out of the final film?
Tim is not a day person. But in order to paint under the
conditions of Vermeer, you have to become a day person. Instead of getting up
at his usual noon or one o’clock in the afternoon, and staying up the night
working on his technological ideas, when the world is dead and you can have
time to think, if there was light coming in Tim’s window, it was time to get
up. He said to me that he got in the habit of taking three aspirin every
morning, because the pain in his back was so bad from leaning over the painting
that he knew he had to head that off.
[Another thing not in the film] is that Tim looked up one of
Vermeer’s paintings called “Officer and Laughing Girl.” In the painting there’s
a partially opened window. In the partially opened window, you can see
reflections. The reflections are in the shape of Gothic arches. There are lots
of people around who believe that Vermeer just imagined these scenes and then
painted them. Tim is very clearly of the opinion that Vermeer could not have
painted such scenes without very real things to look at. So when Tim saw these
arch reflections in that window, he thought “What could have caused those?” So
when we went to Delft, Tim went to the two locations where Vermeer painted. One
was at his father’s tavern, called Mechelen, probably up on the second floor. When I visited Tim at [where the since destroyed Mechelen buildling would have been], Tim said,
“Let me just see, if I was at Mechelen, and I opened up the window at a partial
angle, what would that window reflect?” So he literally angled his iPhone at
the angle that the window would have been at, and he tipped the iPhone at just
a slight angle like the window, and there were the arches of the local church.
That’s a shivery fucking moment!
As a magician, were
you drawn to the idea of discovering the mechanics behind something seemingly
impossible or wondrous?
I was intrigued by the whole notion of solving this 350-year-old mystery. The funny thing is that the 45-degree angle mirror comes
straight out of magic. When you see an empty box, and they close the door, and
they open it up, and somebody pops up, three out of four times the way that
person has been masked is with a 45-degree angle mirror reflecting the interior
of the box in a way that’s very deceptive. So seeing that magic principle
suddenly unlock this 350 year old mystery was amazing to me.
But another thing is that in magic you see a miraculous result.
If somebody gives you a quick little explanation of the process, you go, “Oh,
is that all it was?” But if I spend 40 minutes with someone, really showing
them how a magic trick works, and you see in every detail exactly every
maneuver, by the time I’m done with you, you’ll be more amazed by the secret
to that trick than you were by the effect.
And that’s something of the experience at the core of this
movie. The core of this movie is that if you know what the artist did, to
really make this painting happen, the power of it is multiplied many times. The
proof of this is that when we played Telluride, we had a very large audience
who were really very taken by the film. At the end of the film, we introduced
Tim. The audience immediately rose to their feet as if he were the conquering
hero. Tim had brought the painting along, and unveiled the painting there, and
the crowd gathered around it like it was a holy icon. Now, if they’d seen that
painting in a museum, they’d have said “That’s a really nice painting,” but
because they were now participants, and knew what a human being had to do to
achieve an amazing thing like that — to achieve a miracle, to achieve a magic
trick — they now had a whole different dimension of love for it and for the
creator of the painting.
I came away from this
film with the impression that Tim Jenison is the smartest guy on Earth.
I don’t think you’re mistaken about that. He’s certainly
smarter than any other human being I know. He’s very smart, but you adore him.
He’s never pompous, he never makes big claims. And, in fact, even with all of
the evidence he brings to the idea that maybe his device was the device that
Vermeer had used, he still gets to the end of the film and says “I think I’m
about 90% convinced.” While everybody else in the world makes exaggerated
claims, Tim always pulls back. Tim always says, “It could have been that.” And
that makes him somebody you can’t help loving. Somebody who has that little
bullshit in his system, and that much energy and smarts and wit.
We’re really fortunate that he’s funny. The movie really
feels to me like a very strange comedy. It feels like this comedy built on this
extraordinary, odd, almost Samuel Beckett kind of idea of watching somebody make
a painting as a movie. But it’s completely rescued by the fact that Tim’s
funny. So we’re always with him. Another day, more dots.