“Tim’s Vermeer” documents one man’s obsession to learn how 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted the way he did. Produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller (both of Penn and Teller magic fame), the documentary is well done in terms of following its hero, inventor Tim Jenison, but fails to ask one major question—why? Tim says over and over again that he is not a painter. Then why is this so important to him?
Obsession aside, Tim is a fascinating character all on his own. A self-made man, he is an inventor, a visionary—genius, if you will (who seems to do his best thinking in the bathtub)—and very rich. It’s his wealth, albeit understated, that enables him to pursue his quest to learn more about Vermeer and his process.
We learn that Vermeer left very little information behind about his work. What separates his art from others seems to be the lighting—how he managed to capture light in his paintings—to the point that they almost look like photographs, long before photography was invented. Others have questioned Vermeer’s methods, most notably, David Hockney in his book, “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of Old Masters” and London architecture professor, Philip Steadman, in his book, “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces.” Tim engages their interest in his project, telling them of his theories, and Hockney and Steadman end up providing Tim with advice and encouragement along the way.
Tim goes to Holland for some answers, but learns little. He then heads to England to meet with Hockney and, hopefully, to see the lone Vermeer in London, hanging in Buckingham Palace. With the help of friends and the ability to never take no for an answer, Tim is finally allowed a 30-minute private audience with the painting. When he exits the Palace, he is overwhelmed emotionally at what he has witnessed. It’s a very heart-warming moment and really illustrates what a fascinating person Tim is.
Tim ultimately decides the one way to get answers to his questions is to replicate Vermeer’s studio exactly and paint precisely as he thinks Vermeer would have. He chooses to paint Vermeer’s, The Music Lesson. It’s an extremely tedious process, but he follows it through, talking to the camera every step of the way. To tell much more would take away from some of “Tim’s Vermeer” genuine pleasures.
For those who know little (and I am one) about art, photography and the inner workings of each, “Tim’s Vermeer” is very informative. I enjoyed learning more about paints and lighting optics. It’s also fun to watch others who are fully vested in a topic and see how their minds work. Make no mistake; we are in the company of some very brilliant people. But genius can only go so far in holding one’s attention.
At one point during the film, it seems as if among his many talents, Tim is also a mind-reader, when in trying to paint tiny specs, he says, “it’s like watching paint dry.” Painfully, I have to agree. This is a documentary that would be better served by television…when one could put it on pause, grab a snack or do whatever and the come back to the film. “Tim’s Vermeer” saving grace is its musical score. It’s delightfully in keeping with the tone of the film and helps to pick up the pace best as it can. The documentary’s other major pleasure is Tim himself. Frankly, I want to know a lot more about him. Why this obsession? What’s next? Has he decided to take up painting as a hobby? If there is a follow-up, please, next time, bring it to CNN or HBO.