It’s entirely possible Tim’s Vermeer is one long gag. Or a short gag if we’re talking screen time. The 80-minute documentary about painstakingly recreating a painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer was directed by Teller and produced by Penn Jillette—you know, Penn & Teller, the guys who craft elaborate illusions while couching them in humor.
What a gag that would be, but such is the drive, the tenacity, the spirit of Tim Jenison—the Tim of Tim’s Vermeer—that the whole thing becomes a case study in the way a creative and precise mind works. No, this isn’t the Joaquin Phoenix-Casey Affleck misfire I’m Still Here. This is obsession masked as curiosity, and a fascinating obsession at that.
Jenison is an inventor. Among other things, he founded NewTek, a company that has been responsible for huge advances in desktop video production. Another thing Jenison did: According to the movie, he taught himself to play piano with a player piano, slowing down the piano’s speed and following along on the keys with his fingers until he learned songs perfectly.
At some point he became enamored of Vermeer—you know, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”—and got the idea he could recreate one of Vermeer’s masterpieces. Note: Jenison has no training as a painter whatsoever.
It sounds as boring as whale shit—there are moments in Tim’s Vermeer when one is quite literally watching paint dry—but it’s compelling. First, Jenison hypothesizes that Vermeer, because of the way he could paint light and shadows, must have had some kind of mechanism to help him.
Second, Jenison talks with other people who have had similar notions about Vermeer. Third, Jenison goes to Delft, Netherlands, to get a little more insight into Vermeer’s process.
All that sounds normal, or at least normal-ish, but Jenison achieves a level of focus that, to the casual viewer, may seem unhealthy (it’s amazing he doesn’t have heart palpitations from the stress.) Jenison recreates Vermeer’s Delft studio in San Antonio, right down to the size of the room, the light coming through the window and the furniture, and sets out to paint his own version of “The Music Lesson.”
How he does it is a fairly simple construct—or simple once it’s explained. What makes Tim’s Vermeer more than a curio is the logical angle by which Jenison pursues his goal. Using his skills as an engineer and scientist to his advantage pays off dividends.
The real fun—or drudgery, depending on your point of view—occurs when Jenison starts to go a little bananas recreating the painstaking details of “The Music Lesson.” One thousand monkeys on one thousand typewriters could hammer out War and Peace faster than it takes Jenison to get through certain sections of the painting.
Whether it’s all worth it is up for debate. Jenison himself seems relieved when he’s finished, and the painting—at least from the glimpses we get in the documentary—looks like a stellar confection. Does it have the true look and feel of a Vermeer? Hard to say, but the ride is fun.
Directed by Teller
With Tim Jenison and Penn Jillette