Film: Tim’s Vermeer

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Tim’s Vermeer | Director Teller | Score: 5.8

There is in human beings the desire to believe in the direct power of an almighty, in ways that go far beyond the strict tenements of faith and consecration. After all, you might not believe in the Bible or Quran in any literal way, but you can listen to Mozart or read Tolstoy and find your soul magically uplifted and magnified in ways you can’t possibly understand. The soaring resonance of art can be viewed as nothing less than the proof of the soul, and by that, the existence of God. Which is why when something comes along to challenge the notion of this sublime art’s creation, people reflexively become slightly unglued. To contest the work’s invention is to monkey with the basest tenement of their faith.

Now, that’s likely not what Tim Jenison, the obsessive inventor, had in mind when he set about trying to determine just how it was that Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer painted his extraordinary body of work. As documented by world-famous magician Teller, using his show-barker partner Penn as the host, his good friend Jenison just wanted to solve the puzzle of how any human being could recreate so faithfully and in such agonizingly rich detail, the verisimilitude of life.

Putting his considerable intellect into it, Jenison began to develop further the theory famously put forth by the artist David Hockney (one that also met with a firestorm of controversy from the art establishment) that Vermeer, like many of his fellow masters, used a camera obscura to render their paintings in such exquisite detail. To Jenison’s mind, the camera obscura, essentially, a dark room with a small hole bored out to relay whatever lies in front of it, was only the beginning of Vermeer’s technical wizardry. After much deliberation, it occurred to him that if one held a small mirror at just the right angle over a canvas, one could easily match the shapes, colors and nuances of the real thing exactly as you were painting it.

In order to prove his theory, he then set out to try to faithfully recreate one of Vermeer’s masterworks, specifically “The Music Lesson.” He built a set in his native San Antonio that recreated Vermeer’s studio in Delft, quite literally building each aspect of the painting by hand, including the stain glass windows, chairs, and flooring. Once reproduced, he then set his contraption up to a canvas in order to make the actual painting itself, a painstaking process that ended up taking over 200 days to complete.

In the final tally, it’s hard to determine what, if anything the film actually proves. Vermeer famously left no notes, there’s no record of his methodology and few clues on the paintings themselves, which had no sketches or false starts underneath the final version. Jenison, as quirky and obsessive as he is, ultimately isn’t trying to formulate scientific evidence of Vermeer’s approach (apart from everything else, even as meticulous as his re-creation is, it’s riddled with compromises and work-arounds, after all, the light in Vermeer’s studio in Delft is world’s different from what appears to be a small strip mall in San Antonio), just putting forth a loving theory as to how he might have worked.

One gets the sense that Teller, ever the illusionist, is mostly interested in the slight-of-hand unveiling of the great Dutch Master, like watching archive film of Houdini in his prime and theorizing how he must have made his escape from inside a straightjacket encased in concrete. Little or no attention is paid to the staggering controversy of Hockney and Jenison’s theories in the art world, or giving opportunity for any art historian to offer alternate ideas. Nor does it speak to what the ramifications might be to those of us who consider Vermeer one of the few unquestionable geniuses in the annuls of humankind. What Teller is more moved by is his friend’s obsessive nature, and the way his great mind works to solve an enormously complex problem.

The film thus ends abruptly with Jension, having spent several obsessive years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on this particular endeavor, standing proudly before his Vermeer portrait as it hangs over the mantle before him. Famous Dutch master mystery solved, now, we suppose, its on to the next thing.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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