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Review of Tim’s Vermeer

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Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter, created works that diverged significantly from those of his contemporaries. Though he painted domestic scenes and portraits, his works’ appearance shared more with modern photography than paintings of his era. Where he developed these skills is a mystery — there’s no record of Vermeer’s training, which is very uncommon for artists of the mid-17th century. Normally artists listed their apprenticeships and other engagements to enhance their prestige. His works also stood out through their lack or preparatory sketches on the canvas. How he produced his work is a mystery.

Tim’s Vermeer, a Penn & Teller Film, investigates Vermeer’s process. Penn Jillette and Teller, the taller and shorter halves of Penn & Teller, respectively, have in recent years branched out from their magic show at the Rio in Las Vegas. Their other projects include Penn’s appearances on Celebrity Apprentice and Teller’s well-received direction of Macbeth. The “Tim” of the film’s title is Tim Jenison, a technologist, inventor, and friend of Penn’s for many years. Jenison surged to nerd prominence in the 1980s with products such as DigiView and the iconic Video Toaster. His company, NewTek, produces LightWave 3D, popular modeling software for artists, designers, and engineers.

During a conversation with Penn, Tim casually remarked that he was trying to recreate a Vermeer painting. Tim’s not a painter, but he has an inventive mind, an eye for detail, and an understanding of light from his work as a 3D design software developer. He happened to read British artist  David Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which postulated that Vermeer had used optical aids to produce his work.  Over time, Tim intuited and tested a process that combined camera obscura projection and a series of mirrors to magnify the subject image and compare the subject’s color with that on the canvas. When there is no discernable step at the edge of the comparison mirror, a condition that surely brings joy to professional magicians Penn & Teller, the rendering matches the subject.

The film then describes Tim’s efforts to research the piece he has chosen to recreate, The Music Lesson, and build a full-size physical model of the scene in a San Antonio warehouse. One light-hearted moment comes when Tim and the gang visit London and request permission from the Queen of England to view the original work, which is in the crown’s private collection in Buckingham Palace. Originally denied access, Penn & Teller recorded a rant that could easily have fit into their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Fortunately, just a portion of this segment played briefly and at very low volume while Penn’s voiceover revealed the Queen had changed her mind and granted Tim a half-hour viewing.

While in England, Tim had the opportunity to speak with several experts, including David Hockney. One shot in Hockney’s studio deliberately exposes the reflection of the director, Teller, and a cameraman in a full-length dressing mirror in Hockney’s studio. It’s a nice touch that reminds us we are watching a mediated depiction of a conversation about a mediated depiction of reality.

Back in San Antonio, Tim’s team constructs the set and he starts painting in earnest. There are many terrific moments in this part of the film, but I won’t spoil them for you. I will say that, at a late stage of the project, Tim’s dedication to detail threatened to turn part of the process from a Seurat-like pointillist rendering into a Sartre-like existentialist nightmare. To his credit, Teller chose not to hype Tim’s obsession on the project. Rather, he lets the viewer empathize with Tim by bringing to mind pursuits they’ve taken to unlikely extremes.

I recommend Tim’s Vermeer without reservation. It’s a compact film, running just 80 minutes, and I plan to buy DVD copies of it as gifts for friends. That said, I did have some small issues with the piece. There were several instances of double exposition, where an interview or voiceover repeated the same information in close proximity. Also, I felt that sped-up sequences where Tim shifted between views of the set’s LightWave 3D model were interesting eye candy but went on a bit long and added nothing to the narrative. I found similar set construction sequences to be effective, so maybe I didn’t see how the computer graphics furthered the story. 

Regardless of these minor complaints, I think Tim’s Vermeer is a terrific documentary that will appeal to anyone who has ever thought “That’s funny…” and followed their observation to its logical, or perhaps illogical, conclusion.

Tim’s Vermeer runs through March 20, 2014 at Cinema 21 in Portland, OR. You can find more information about the film, as well as showtimes and venues in other cities, at its dedicated page on the Sony Classics site.

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