Starring: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney
Directed by: Teller
At one point during the painstaking experience of attempting to recreate a painting by renowned Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, San Antonio-based inventor Tim Jenison candidly tells the documentary cameras that if they weren’t making a film, he’d give up on the project and “find something better to do.” It’s a humorous moment of clear frustration, though it’s hard to imagine a man who has dedicated nearly a decade to a project would give up that easy.
Art enthusiasts might know that 17th century painter Vermeer’s work has an almost photographic look, especially in his use of light in ways that no other artist had done before. The catch is, almost no record of Vermeer’s life is available and his techniques are largely a mystery. Enter Jenison, a self-made business owner who becomes fascinated with finding out how Vermeer accomplished his work. After much thought, Tim constructs a theory of how Vermeer might have accomplished these paintings by the use of mirrors and optics. Armed with a hypothesis and zero art experience, Jenison sets out to replicate one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings in “Tim’s Vermeer.”
With magician/comedian duo Penn & Teller behind the film (the former serves as producer and narrator, the latter producer and director) the films debunking approach is no surprise given their 8-season run on Showtime with their show “Bullshit!” Despite the thesis of uncovering the mystery behind Vermeer’s work, the film never takes a judgmental or condescending tone. Instead, it’s a respect and admiration for the brilliance of Vermeer. As a subject, Jenison is extremely amusing and personable, using his obvious wealth to have carte blanche to conduct his experiment.
After a quick “science lesson” explaining Jenison’s theory, Tim begins to actually put it to the test, which is when the film becomes immensely fascinating. It becomes apparent that Jenison might just be onto something, and from there the film never looks back. Beyond the simple premise of someone attempting to recreate a work of art, “Tim’s Vermeer” is also successful at displaying dedication and the idea of seeing something through to the absolute end.
It is important to note that you don’t have to be even remotely interested in art to enjoy “Tim’s Vermeer.” After all, this film isn’t really about art. It’s about discovery of science, history, and self. While the film succeeds in so many areas, there is also a certain unpolished feeling most notably through awkward and jarring edits, repetitive music cues and the occasional tedious moment permeating the film. While they aren’t terrible offenses, it’s enough to knock the production values down a peg. Full of humor, intrigue, fantastic reveals, and sure to spark a debate in the art community, “Tim’s Vermeer” is a delightfully captivating documentary.