Tim's Vermeer

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/27/14 12:13:09

"Seeing how something works makes it even more impressive."
5 stars (Awesome)

Even though the second half of the duo is the person who actually directed "Tim's Vermeer", the first credit on the screen describes it as "a Penn & Teller film". That's appropriate, and not just because Penn Jillette frequently appears on screen and serves as the narrator. The pair's work as a team has always been about showing, in an entertaining manner, that understanding how something is done does not make it less impressive, but more so, and in Tim Jenison (and his quest to replicate the work and methods of Johannes Vermeer), they have found a fine example of this principle.

Jenison and Vermeer, on the surface, appear to be cut from quite different sports of cloth: While the later was an eighteenth-century oil painter known for his stunningly detailed and life-like work, Jenison is into electronics, most recently and notably a popular special effects and animation system. When he reads a book about how many of the old masters might have used camera obscura setups to aid in their work, though Vermeer's paintings cannot be entirely explained by that technology, he has a brainstorm on how it might have been done - and then sets out to prove this was possible by recreating one of Vermeer's most famous paintings, "The Music Lesson", using only the technology available in the Netherlands at the time... Even though he has never painted in his life.

Detail is one of the things Vermeer is known for, and the way Teller presents detailed information in his film is one of its great, if sometimes invisible, pleasures. Teller has a knack for anticipating questions the audience might have and addressing them preemptively, along with making sure to include details about what parts of the art world were secretive versus transparent, or how x-raying a Vermeer shows something different from contemporary artists. And while sometimes certain points and demonstrations will be repeated as new people are introduced to Tim's project, Teller avoids burdening the viewer with unnecessary detail. He can do this in part because what Jenison has come up with is a remarkably elegant theory and accompanying bit of equipment, but even when that's the case, "just enough" is a hard target to hit.

It probably helps quite a bit that Tim Jenison comes across as a thoroughly pleasant guy to spend time with. Though very smart and given a boisterous, larger-than-life introduction by Jillette, he comes across as very down-to-earth, with a dry sense of humor that makes the extraordinary things he's doing feel very relatable. His demeanor is subdued enough that Teller has to push himself and Jillette further to the side than he might do in other projects, bit it winds up being for the best, as it allows him to show Tim's quiet pride and moments of joy when he makes a discovery. A few other people show up and provide some contrast - notably British artist David Hockney and art historian Philip Steadman, whose own researches inspired Tim - but the soft-spoken Jenison proves quite capable of carrying the movie.

We see a lot of Tim doing the actual work, and while this may seem repetitive at points, there's a point or two to it: It assures us that Tim is not taking any shortcuts, and also underscores that what Vermeer did 350 years ago was a tremendous achievement, even if it's not the same type of accomplishment that one might have assumed it to be. And it's certainly not all just watching Tim lean over a canvas and mirror while making precise brush strokes (which, to be fair, provides a "wow, this is working!" moment every few minutes); the montage of how he spent a lot of time preparing to paint by learning how to make lenses and pigments or constructing a physical replica of the scene, sometimes using high-tech tools to reverse-engineer it, is quite the entertaining sequence as well.

Those two processes take up a large chunk of the films fairly short 80-minute running time, but it's well-spent. Given that Teller could probably have added ten or fifteen minutes to the movie without the audience getting squirmy, it might have been nice to have a little bit of more concentrated consideration about what this discovery would mean for Vermeer's reputation as an artist; I fear that some viewers will give more weight to Steadman's comment about Vermeer turning himself into a machine than Jenison pointing out that everything in his painting is the result of artistic decisions that Vermeer made - that, in a sense, what Tim is doing here is the same thing he does in his day job: He's creating a technological means for artists to render what they see in their mind's eye with fidelity; if this is what Vermeer did (and the film makes a strong case), the two are certainly more similar than one might originally have thought.

Then again, presenting a debate rather than just enabling one would likely have added unwanted rancor to a very inviting movie while diluting the "how things work" material that is such a big part of its charm. You don't see that sort of delightful deconstruction everywhere, even if it is these guys' specialty. So I'll happily take "Tim's Vermeer" as is, and next time I see a Vermeer, be even more impressed for the ingenuity and work put into it, rather than just assuming he was "just" some sort of savant.

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