Dir: Teller. US. 2013. 80mins
What’s the secret of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s radiant painting style? Magicians Penn & Teller seek out one contentious possibility in their first film, a lightweight documentary about Tim Jenison, a successful inventor and visual effects pioneer, who set out to recreate Vermeer’s famous painting “The Music Lesson.”
The film follows Jenison’s obsessive journey to develop and prove that Vermeer not only used a Camera Obscura, but also mirrors and lenses that helped him faithfully reproduce color tones and details that would be unrecognisable to the naked eye.
Following a number of prominent documentaries that have addressed questions about the nature of art and authenticity (My Kid Could Paint That, Exit Through the Gift Shop), Tim’s Vermeer may not be as strong, but could likewise find comparable niche support, particularly with a boost from Sony Pictures Classics’ release in the US.
Narrated by Penn, Tim’s Vermeer elaborates on a theory—put forth most famously by British professor Phillip Steadman in his book Vermeer’s Camera—that Vermeer’s paintings were so photo-realistic that he must have used early technological tools such as the Camera Obscura.
In the first scene, Penn introduces us to his friend, Jenison, an inventor from an early age—he could fix anything electronic—who became intrigued with Steadman’s hypothesis and began a multi-year quest to realise his dream of “painting a Vermeer.”
The film follows Jenison’s obsessive journey to develop and prove that Vermeer not only used a Camera Obscura, but also mirrors and lenses that helped him faithfully reproduce color tones and details that would be unrecognisable to the naked eye. It’s “a scientific experiment waiting to happen,” as Penn says.
Jenison’s commitment to his project is more far-fetched than the theory itself. Traveling from England and Holland to conduct detailed research and speak with Steadman and artist David Hockney, he sets out to build an exact replica of Vermeer’s painting studio in San Antonio, TX from scratch—using only materials that would be available to the Dutch artist. He also creates a technological contraption that could readily have been made in the 17th century.
Penn milks a good dose of humor out of Jenison’s ability to take on everything from woodworking to glass-making to painting, even though he has little interest or experience in any of these crafts, all in order to prove his theory. Still, as crazy as the project sounds, Jenison doesn’t come across as particularly fanatical—he’s a far cry, for example, from Werner Herzog’s parade of real-life weirdoes. But Tim’s Vermeer might have been more fascinating if he were.
When Jenison finally begins working on his recreation, the process is, at first, intriguing, particularly when he encounters some hurtles along the way (i.e. carbon monoxide poisoning). But then after some 50 days of detailed brushstrokes, the tedium of the project begins to weigh on Jenison himself—and the audience.
Ultimately, Jenison’s experiment does appear to produce some startling revelations. But it’s hard to say. Penn and Teller leave the film open-ended, allowing viewers to debate and decide upon the legitimacy of Jenison’s work. This ambiguity might make for provocative post-screening discussions, but it may also be an oversight not to hear from experts about whether they believe it’s just a lark or should, in fact, be taken seriously.
The documentary also takes on a greater philosophical question: Are art and technology antithetical, or two sides of the same coin? It’s an engaging line of inquiry, to be sure, but one that Tim’s Vermeer barely scratches the surface of.
Production Company: High Delft Pictures LLC
US distribution/contact: Sony Pictures Classics, www.sonyclassics.com
Producers: Penn Jillette, Farley Ziegler
Executive Producers: Peter Adam Golden, Glenn S. Alai, Tim Jenison, Teller.
Cinematography: Shane F. Kelly
Editor: Patrick Sheffield
Music: Conrad Pope
Main cast: Penn Jillette, Tim Jenison, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney, Colin Blakemore