‘Tim’s Vermeer’ is an intriguing, if workmanlike, documentary

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Tim’s Vermeer
Directed by Teller
USA, 2014

Tim Jenison was a successful inventor who created several graphics technologies for film and television, from the legendary Video Toaster to many current 3-D graphics programs. During the mid–2000s, he became obsessed with the famed Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, whose paintings demonstrate such an impressive command of light that it seemed he had invented the photograph almost 200 years before the word photography was coined. At the time Jennison’s obsession came into being, Jenison was friends with Penn Jillette, of the magician/comedian duo Penn & Teller, who took an interest in filming his efforts. The product of their collaboration is the new documentary Tim’s Vermeer.

Jension’s obsession concerned the theory that Vermeer used some kind of optical technology to produce his art. There exists no record of Vermeer having ever trained as a painter, while mirror and lens manufacturing was at a new landmark during his prime, so many art historians have speculated that Vermeer painted with the aid of (for example) a camera obscura. Jension saw further, and developed a complicated setup of mirrors reflecting a camera obscura he believes can allow him to reproduce a Vermeer precisely, despite his lack of any training. The film’s centerpiece is Jenison’s attempt over the course of 6 years to use his method to reproduce Vermeer’s “The Piano Lesson”.

The goal is not to demonstrate that Vermeer was a fraud in the traditional sense. Instead, Jension and especially Jillette (who narrates the film) want the audience to believe that the term fraud is inappropriate — there is no conspiracy theorism at work in this film. The Jenison technique is painstaking, exhausting, and requires a knowledge of optics that would have been revolutionary in Vermeer’s day. Penn & Teller look at that combination of talents and see an artist, whether Vermeer was trained as one or not.

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However, the film is so obsessed with the nuts and bolts of Jenison’s efforts that the actual beauty of his art gets short shrift. The replication of “The Piano Lesson” is described almost entirely by its technical exactitude, such as the minor flaw in the painting that Jenison discovers purely by accident. The understanding of light that Vermeer must have had, the painterly imagination that he must have possessed, is lost in the details. Teller’s direction is workmanlike, reflecting the workmanlike approach that Jenison has for his apparently overwhelming task.

Still, Penn and Teller accomplish what they set out to do with Tim’s Vermeer: they demonstrate the kinship between themselves, Jension, and Vermeer. A pair of stage magicians like Penn & Teller deliver the value in creating such a technically demanding illusion with mirrors and the misdirection of light. And Jenison, through his grueling process, understands the dedication that Vermeer must have had for his craft despite the lack of formal training. None of these things is sufficient substitute for actual artistic beauty, but they make for an intriguing documentary.

— Mark Young




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