Two fascinating men and their obsessive pursuit for innovation and artistry are captured in Tim’s Vermeer. Filmmaker Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) crafts the documentary about inventor Tim Jenison attempting to duplicate the painting techniques of the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. The film and the craft are a great feat.
Jenison has the dubious title of ‘inventor’ because he’s able to adapt his intellect to any job but his specialty is building computer software. A thirst for knowledge has taken Jenison all around the world chasing solar eclipses, going on zero gravity flights in the upper atmosphere and studying artworks. Jenison explains that when he goes to sleep at night he dreams about the being able to paint like Vermeer.
For years, art critics and historians have debated about Vermeer’s ability to paint photorealistic scenes that set him apart from a majority of the artists of the seventieth century. The British artist David Hockney proposed in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of Old Masters that Vermeer used optical aids to capture his subjects. Jenison is inspired by what Hockney proposes and tests the theory by building the contraptions thought to have been used by Vermeer. The end goal is to recreate Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson.
From the outset of the experiment Jenison makes it clear that he’s not a painter, he’s a computer guy. What becomes noticeable in the introduction is that Jenison is a chameleon who has a pure instinct for ingenuity and is able to absorb information rapidly and become an overnight expert. During the research phase of the project Jenison learns how to speak Dutch just so he can translate special documents relating to Vermeer’s life. There are also humourous moments when he observes a beautifully handcrafted table he has just completed by proclaiming, ‘I’ve never done this before’. Jenison is an intriguing personality who sucks you into his passion project and is extremely self-depreciating in the shadow of Vermeer.
Trial and error plays a big part of the documentary and Teller keeps in close proximity to Jenison at all times for the highs and lows. Throughout the research phase the case is made for Vermeer’s secret gadgets and the evidence is striking. All Jenison has to do is figure out the method and put it into action. Like an archaeologist digging up a T-Rex, Jenison slowly dusts away the secrets of the past to figure out Vermeer’s method. Soon, Jenison starts to paint portraits and vases worthy of gallery space. The process is amazing and there are several joyous moments of discovery as Jenison troubleshoots his system of paints, lenses and mirrors.
The assignment begins to positively snowball and Jenison has no choice but to attempt to create The Music Lesson. A physical representation of the painting is painstakingly recreated down to minute detail in a storage unit. Jenison even travels to the United Kingdom and asks the Queen if he can see the original Music Lesson that hangs in Buckingham Palace. Teller stays with Jenison for almost every brush stroke, hunched over a small workstation for what feels like the world’s longest arts and crafts session. Jenison makes mistakes but they become happy accidents as he unlocks more clues in the painting that favour Hockney’s theory.
At the halfway point it’s clear that Jenison is painting like the Dutch master he idolises and the quandary of the process starts to niggle. Does Jenison’s method dispel the talent of Vermeer? As Jenison looks into the camera, red rings around his eyes, looking like death warmed up, he begins to realise that Vermeer’s genius was his patience and ability to combine art and technology during a time when the ruling institutions deemed they be kept apart. And it is still happening in 2014 as referenced by Hockney who is interviewed about the snobbery his book still gets. If anything, Jenison manages to humanise Vermeer as an innovator instead the divine genius written into the history books. Jenison shows great humility and admiration for his hero as the final dollop of paint hits the canvas and the dream becomes a reality. The usually steely Jenison is overwhelmed with emotion and you want to offer a hug because he now feels like an old friend.
As the brushes are set down and the paint dries, you step back from Tim’s Vermeer to discover a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, celebrating two great thinkers connected across time by their creations.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW