Finally In Wider Release, 'Tim's Vermeer' Is A Tale Of Art And Invention
Playing at film festivals around the globe for months Tim’s Vermeer has developed an appreciative audience. It’s a deserved reputation that may only expand now that it’s finally showing in theaters.
Tim’s Vermeer is a canny and lively documentary directed by Teller, of the Penn and Teller team of oddball magicians. Teller’s partner Penn Jilette serves more or less as the film’s guide to another eccentric named Tim Jenison.
An inventor and all-around obsessive engineer type, Tim takes it into his head to paint a Vermeer painting. That’s, of course, impossible. Only Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter of the 17th century, could do that. And Tim knows it, but he has a theory about the elaborate equipment Vermeer used and over the course of the film he tries it out.
Tim Jenison knew that several people had the notion that the stunning detail of Vermeer’s work came because he used optical devices. He likely set up something like a camera obscura, which uses a lens to cast an image into a dark room, and worked from that. Jenison decided that he wanted to do Vermeer’s 1662 painting “The Music Lesson,” even though he’d never seen the original which rests in Buckingham Palace. As the film shows, Jenison sets to work.
The short of it is that Tim Jenison learns a number of things about art. For instance, it’s really hard work.
He also may have figured out that Vermeer did not exactly use a camera obscura, maybe just a lens and also a mirror. At any rate, the apparatus that Jenison sets up for himself is ingenious, and it works for him. For a guy who had never even used a paint brush before, he does a remarkable facsimile of the Vermeer painting. But the quality of Tim’s version of Vermeer does not account for the brilliance or the sheer delight of the movie.
Tim’s Vermeer gets into the relationship between art and technology. It presents them as opposites and makes the point that this famous artist, Vermeer, used technology in his work. Of course Vermeer used “technology.” Every painter uses technology – or technique – whether it’s grinding up pigments in a mortar and pestle or using a brush – those are tools, instruments of technology, and art is nigh unto impossible without some level of technology.
What I think the movie wants to define is the relationship between art and technology. It’s pretty clear that Tim is not an artist – he doesn't claim to be – but he is an enthusiastic inventor and maker of tools and other things. He builds a replica of the room where Vermeer painted “The Music Lesson.” Jenison also actually makes the lens that he uses to copy the scene, using the technology of Vermeer’s time. It’s fascinating to watch him do these things, and Jenison is so joyous about it all that you can’t help but cheer him on.
Jenison also has a bundle of resources. He wants to talk to the British painter David Hockney about Hockney’s theory of how Vermeer painted, so Tim jets off to Hockney’s lovely rural English home. Tim doesn't explain how this came about, but he has the connections to get the Queen of England to let him spend a half-hour with the Vermeer painting, which she happens to own.
Some people have criticized the film for the ease at which Tim Jenison does these things, and yes, he is immensely privileged and obviously well-to-do. But besides his wealth and connections, Tim Jenison is possessed of the kind of obsessiveness that makes him seem like a magical uncle who breezes into your world to show you things and do things with you that your parents haven’t the time to do.
And at the end, you’re left to understand how it is that while Tim Jenison can make this painting, Vermeer himself was not just a guy with cool tools. He saw what others could not, conceived of what others could not, and has dazzled and touched the hearts of people for over 350 years and counting, as others could not.
That’s what Tim’s Vermeer shows.