Editor’s note: this review was originally published on October 7, 2013, as part of our NYFF coverage. It is being reposted today for its initial theatrical opening.
Tim Jenison is a bit of a nut. Of course, one can easily imagine that a friend of the eminently wacky Penn Jillette might have one or two screws loose. This mild mania is what makes his double act with Teller successful, a frenzied creative energy. Their sense of humor punctuates Tim’s Vermeer, narrated and produced by Penn and directed by Teller.
Yet, beyond the friendship between Tim and Penn that got the project going, this film has very little to do with the Vegas comedians. It’s about a brilliant inventor and his eccentric obsession with a 17th century Dutch painter. At the beginning of the story, Tim is already a very successful man by way of his video production technology company, NewTek. He has a handful of Emmys and a fortune, the latter of which will help him fulfill his dream of painting a Vermeer.
Tim is not a painter and up until this project has never worked with oil paints in his life. But, as he explains, that shouldn’t matter. As a great admirer of the Johannes Vermeer, he has read the recent books on the Old Dutch Masters, notably by the artist David Hockney and the art historian Philip Steadman. These two put forth the theory that Vermeer and others must have used the science of optics to create their masterworks, in particular images projected by a camera obscura. This ruffled some feathers in the art history world, as if Steadman and Hockney were accusing the legends of 17th century painting of cheating.
Tim, on the other hand, has a theory of his own. He totally buys the argument that Vermeer used optics, but he thinks he knows exactly how he worked. He shows it to Penn first and then their friend Martin Mull, who is apparently an artist in addition to being a well known actor. Teller’s direction emphasizes the “wow” moment for all of these witnesses, keeping things brisk and entertaining as we watch Tim’s ingeniously simple idea unfold. I won’t spoil the details of his theory, but the most salient point is that if he’s right, Vermeer’s method can be copied by anyone, even someone who has never painted before.
Instead of writing a book, like Hockney or Steadman, he decides to try it out himself. Sparing no expense, he rents a warehouse in San Antonio and plans to copy Vermeer’s method exactly. He wants to create an exact replica of the room from one of the artist’s masterpieces, The Music Lesson, and then paint it. Penn and Teller made sure every last moment was recorded, from Tim’s hilarious attempts to build a 17th century virginal (a sort of harpsichord) to the many, many arduous brushstrokes.
The final cut of this endeavor, which takes up a big chunk of Tim’s Vermeer’s 80 minutes, both admires Tim’s perseverance and pokes fun at his frustrations. Yet his perfectionism begins to expand into evidence of something more interesting, aided by the wise testimony of Hockney and Steadman, who Tim flies to England to meet.
In the 21st century we have drawn a line between scientists and artists. Back when Vermeer was painting, such a distinction did not exist. There was nothing strange about a great artist doubling as an inventor, particularly an optician whose work with mirrors and lenses already has to do with color and light. Tim’s Vermeer begins by showing us an inventor mimicking a painter. Along the way he discovers new things about both Vermeer and himself, and the methods of creating works of beauty. By the time he’s finished, that line between technician and creative has begun to evaporate.
On the whole, Tim’s Vermeer is a charming film about a unique and groundbreaking project. Its one weakness is a self-confidence issue. The film begins with Penn sitting in an empty theater, telling us all about his inventor friend. This is all well and good, but Teller keeps cutting back to him, as if we need the more famous man as a conduit to help us care about this crazy undertaking. It doesn’t really add anything and begins to feel like a pointless interruption by the time Tim starts painting.
And the rest of the film is compelling enough on its own. The footage of Tim struggling through The Music Lesson is reminiscent of Kon-Tiki, in a roundabout sort of way. Unlike Thor Heyerdahl, he faces neither sharks nor the fear of starvation. Yet both men threw themselves into realizing their dreams, determined to prove their historical theories with extravagant reenactments. Relative outsiders to the fields they tried to change, they succeeded anyway. And, most importantly, they both made sure to film the whole thing and make a documentary about it.
For more on the film, check out our interview with subject Tim Jenison.