Movie Review: “Tim’s Vermeer” (Teller, USA 2013)

First, I will make my usual note about documentaries. My reviews of documentaries are necessarily incomplete, because documentaries should be judged not only by cinematic standards but also by journalistic ones. I am judging only the merits from a cinematic standpoint, not making any claim to be able to judge its journalistic merits. In this film’s case, I cannot imagine there being journalistic problems, since the film isn’t even making the claim that Vermeer painted using Jenison’s technique, let alone something more outlandish than that fairly reasonable if poorly evidenced claim.

“Tim is not a dressmaker, or a framer, or a carpenter, upholsterer, glazier, builder of virginals–which is a type of harpsichord–metalsmith, furniture maker, plasterer, tile layer, or a lens maker. But he’s not an artist, either! He used what he was–a technologist–to help him become all those things that he wasn’t.”

This quote is the heart of Tim’s Vermeer, the documentary debut of the typically-silent half of magic duo Penn & Teller. The film tells the story of Tim Jenison as he attempts to paint his own version of a painting of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer using an optical technological technique that would have been available (albeit unknown then or since) in Vermeer’s day.

Jenison is an inventor who has been deeply involved in video and graphic design, so he was not clearly out of his depth in looking at Vermeer’s paintings and seeing the photographic level of detail and agreeing with others who have speculated that Vermeer was using optical techniques such as the camera obscura to produce his works. When he discovered the technique that he thought would reproduce the effects that Vermeer captures, he worked on some test cases and spoke with other artists and experts, all of whom agreed that his ingenious technique produced something that Vermeer could have used that would achieve the results he achieved. However, Tim wanted to be able to convince more people, so he decided to paint his own version of Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson to show that he could use his technique to paint a full room in full color and come at least close enough to matching Vermeer to show that it was possible that the Dutch painter used a similar technique. He would confine himself to only what was available to Vermeer–mixing his own paints and building his own lenses by 17th century standards so that he could show that he is not using a modern technological advantage.

What would seem to be a problem is that Jenison was not a painter. And he would have to build a copy of the room in Vermeer’s painting. And he may be wealthy and intelligent, but like Penn Jillette says above, he didn’t have the training for doing lots of what he needed to do.

The basic point of Tim’s Vermeer is not whether Vermeer used optics. It’s not even that Jenison was able to essentially reproduce The Music Lesson. The point is the promise of science and technology, as shown through Jenison. He can’t paint, but he still managed to paint The Music Lesson. He’s not an expert virginal builder, but he built one. He was able to do so many things that he “shouldn’t” be able to do because he has two things at his disposal: his own mind and technology.

His Emmy-winning 3-D optical technology, combined with the basic geometry of lenses, is what allows him to create a digital version of the room in the painting to find the dimensions of everything within it. He can build the legs for his virginal not because he’s an expert craftsman, but because he can get a lathe and then is smart enough to figure out how to make it longer when he needs to. He can build the legs for his chair “not out of any love of woodworking,” as he says, “but because you can’t buy them anymore.”

Throughout it all, Jenison maintains a kind of passive charisma that comes from his sheer simplicity that is extremely reminiscent of Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters. He is generally showing a flat affect, except when he is overcome with emotion upon completion of his painting. Even his jokes (playing “Smoke on the Water” on the cello and saying he painted an elephant in the music room) are delivered in such a deadpan that they almost don’t seem like jokes. And yet it is his simple matter-of-factness that makes him seem both interesting and trustworth as he goes about his work.

Teller makes an excellent choice in using his longtime partner Penn Jillette as a narrator. He is as animated as Jenison is not, and the bit of extra liveliness that he gives the proceedings is necessary for it not to become as laborious as the painting was for Jenison.

Similarly, Teller and editor Patrick Sheffield do an excellent job cutting the fat from a process that is very slow and involved but would probably be extraordinarily dull to watch. The entire film is under an hour and a half, and Jenison doesn’t begin his final work that takes him 130 days until halfway through. Jenison says at one point that sometimes the work is “like watching paint dry,” and it surely would be the same for viewership if the film didn’t move along so quickly.

All told, Tim’s Vermeer is an excellent and hopeful documentary. It may tell the story of one man’s odd obsession and the work it produced, but it is about far more than that, and that’s what makes this film special.

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