Running Time:  80 mins.                      Rating: x Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Teller

Genre: Documentary

Country: USA

Language: English

Distributor: Sony Classics


What was your worst subject in middle school?  If you’re like me, you’d find a dead heat between art and penmanship.  I couldn’t draw a line with a ruler or a circle with a silver dollar.  But what if someone told me that I could paint like Johannes Vermeer, the 17th Century Dutch painter considered by some to be the all-time greatest man in his field?  I’d think that’s a scam, of course, and would keep clicking on the ‘net to see if I could find an ad even more absurd.

Nonetheless, a look at Teller’s documentary TIM’S VERMEER would give me pause.  The title character, in no way a painter but rather an inventor and technologist who made his fortune furthering the fields of digital video, raised enough money with his inventions to enjoy a life of leisure.  Jenison’s would now be a life busy doing notable things, discovering new ideas, even coaxing out a generally entertaining movie under the direction of Teller, who is one-half of the team of Penn and Tiller known for shows featuring prestidigitation.  Tim Jenison, based in San Antonio, Texas, had the idea that Vermeer was somewhat of a cheat: that given the fact that Dutch folks in the 1600s did enjoy looking at telescopes and had mirrors in their bathrooms, the great artist was painting by the numbers, if you will.

The theory is that without smoke but with mirrors, Vermeer was able to get such lifelike detail into his creations that he must have used the technology of his time, specifically the camera obscura, literally a darkened chamber room, to project images of surroundings on a wall or canvas.  Jenison painstakingly built a room, copying and setting up a modern camera obscura.  He simulated the scene in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” and, constructing a likeness of the objects in the painting with appropriate lenses, he created a more than passable likeness of “The Music Lesson.”  Thus, he conjured up what so many of us want from paintings: a canvas that could in some ways pass for a photograph rather than the mystifying examples of abstract art that make people wonder, “That’s great art?  My small daughter could do that in a half hour!”

Teller joins his obsessed inventor in Holland, to Vermeer’s own town, where Jenison learns to read Dutch, then to London to visit the great British painter David Hockney, who is impressed by Jenison’s theory.  The film asks us whether Vermeer’s achievements are lessened now that some believe he created his works with the help of technology, but Teller, who comments now and then, seems more interested in exposing the nature of obsession.  How many people would spend two hundred thirteen days simply copying a great painting, and thereby summoning up evidence that Vermeer did not work simply with his models, a room, a blank canvas and a complex battery of mixed paints?

Jenison elicits the remark that his doings are literally like watching paint dry, and a good part of even this brief doc might seem to some in the audience (like me) to be turgid.  Still, TIM’S VERMEER, though burdened with Conrad Pope’s lively but incessant wall-to-wall music, is an original.


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