“Tim’s Vermeer”

Paleo Retiree writes:


The biggest surprise for me about this documentary was how un-tricky, un-conceptual, and un-meta it was. Co-produced and hosted by Penn Jillette and directed by his partner-in-po-mo-magic Teller, it’s a straightforward account of their friend Tim Jenison, a very successful engineer and entrepreneur (software for movie visuals, mainly), who, fascinated by Vermeer and convinced that Vermeer used optical gizmos to help him make his paintings, sets out to deduce what those gizmos might have been, and then to paint a picture in Vermeer’s style.

And that’s it. Though we get many glimpses of Tim (at work, talking, tinkering, solving problems, etc), the film doesn’t investigate him or his psychology. (No chats with his wife or daughters or employees or friends about him, for instance.) Though we’re introduced to the disputes over the film’s main topic (did Vermeer use optical devices?), we never hear from the opposing side, from people who think the idea is a crock. (The disputes were kicked off in the early 2000s by books by Philip Steadman and David Hockney, both of whom argued that Vermeer — and, in Hockney’s case, many other painters — must have used lenses, camera obscuras and such. An amazing number of artsfans were seriously upset and angered by this claim.) The film limits itself to being a step-by-step account of Tim’s quest, framed by a handful of retrospective raps by Penn that establish the story’s basic facts and framework.

Which turned out for me to be more than enough. Tim’s a brilliant guy, analytical, intuitive, dogged and methodical almost beyond belief. In the course of the movie he reverse-engineers Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” and his ingenuity and devotion are genuinely awe-inspiring. His project goes ‘way beyond a hobby; it may qualify as a genuinely grand obsession. Tim invents devices that Vermeer might have used. He learns how to grind lenses and mix paint in the 17th century way. He uses his own computer-modeling software to help him build a super-exact replica of the setting of “The Music Lesson” before settling down to paint it. Tim has zero background as an artist or a painter … But, if his theory is right, he should be able to create a convincing “Vermeer” even so. Can he really? Teller and Penn seem as fascinated by Tim’s precision, determination, focus and patience as they are by questions about Vermeer, aesthetics and optics.

Tim’s dissection of the evidence in the paintings (there isn’t much written evidence around about how Vermeer worked) raises some hugely interesting questions. The gang of three show Tim’s early efforts to experts and ask for reactions and thoughts — to Martin Mull (an accomplished painter as well as a performer), to the neurophysiologist Colin Blakemore (from whom we learn a bit about how the eye and mind work), to Philip Steadman, and finally to Hockney himself. They’re all smart, articulate and interesting.

The film’s basic theme is part and parcel with Penn and Teller’s basic theme in their own work (which I haven’t seen much of, to be honest): revealing how the magic works while maintaining that pulling-back-the-curtains doesn’t really undermine the magic. If we’re finally convinced that Vermeer didn’t eyeball-and-freehand his paintings — if what he did instead was use some lenses and mirrors and then, guided by them, simply put down patches of color until he had an image — how does that change what we think of his work? And does it mean that the images he created aren’t still great paintings?

Production-wise, the film is pretty much an extended home movie — much of it seems to have been shot on consumer-level videocams — that’s been adorned with helpful, attractive graphics. As a documentary director, Penn isn’t the most resourceful, or even the most playful, guy around. We spend an awful lot of time watching closeups of the tip of Tim’s brush making tiny marks on canvases, accompanied by generic music. For me, the filmmakers’ main filmmaking achievements are 1) having spotted early on the potential for a film here, and 2) keeping at it. Tim’s quest took five years from beginning to end, and Teller kept shooting during those five years too. (And then edited what he had into shape.) But that’s not a criticism — it’s a fact, and in its own way maybe even a good thing, you know?

So: Irony-free and largely concept-free too (Teller and Penn decline nearly all the obvious opportunities to extend the dicussion about technology, image-making and art to the movies themselves — a Boomer movie that forgoes self-referentiality, imagine that!) … Could have been deeper, richer and slicker … But hey, let’s be grateful for an unusual topic, for some impressive resourcefulness, and for a lot of more-than-adequate work.

A few thoughts and reflections:

* If the film’s subject sounds interesting to you, ignore my quibbles and go see the movie. It’s plenty good enough, the topic is oddball and provocative, and your brain and eyes will be tickled. How often does a movie do that? The audience we saw the film with last evening found it absorbing and fascinating. In an “OK, now let’s talk about it!”, book-club sort of sense, the movie could even be said to be a triumph. It’ll work fine on a big TV, but since it does raise questions you’re likely to want to compare notes with others about, seeing it in a theater with friends does confer a lot of benefits.

* If you’ve read Steadman’s book and/or Hockney’s book, or maybe even if you just followed the debates about them in the arts press at the time, the movie’s likely to be not quite as fascinating as it is for many other people. Having both read the books and followed the debates — and being someone for whom the whole “physiology and philosophy of perception” thang has been an abiding interest for decades (I’ve read Blakemore, who’s excellent, and I revere Richard Gregory) — I went into the film already convinced that Vermeer and many other artists of his era used optical devices. So my attention often strayed off onto other topics. For instance: Engineers … They’re a really, er, distinctive (ahhhh — arrogant, jocular, pedantic — choo) subset of humanity, aren’t they?

* To me the film (along with a bunch of other docs I’ve watched in the last five-ish years) represents an interesting cultural development. In the pre-digital film world, words like “low-budget,” “independent” and “personal” implied a lot: the films would be expressive and even experimental, and the filmmakers themselves would be renegades, headstrong individuals defiantly asserting the artistic potential of the documentary form. Digital technology — which has dramatically reduced costs for doc-makers, and which has provided relatively easy access to adequate tools — has vaporized all those presuppositions. These days, if you’re someone who wants to make a movie and you run across a juicy story, there’s pretty much zero reason not to start shooting. Your budget isn’t going to be much of a problem, and when it comes time to put your work before the public, even if theaters and distributors aren’t cooperative, there’s always YouTube and Vimeo. Because no pretentious “It’s an art form, godammit!” and “I’m an artist, godammit!” carrying-on is required any longer, there’s a lot more room in the doc-making universe for quirkiness and insubstantiality; when barriers and hurdles are lower, a lot more projects are going to make it over them. God knows pulling together a feature-length doc is still a lot of work (and I do wish we were seeing more docs of different lengths — the feature-film-length expectation seems to me to continue to be a real burden), but digitech has turned doc-making into something more akin to writing a magazine article than to publishing a book. And that’s my main idea here: these new, lighter, less ambitious, more casual documentaries are what long magazine articles used to be. In ages past, “Tim’s Vermeer” would probably have come to us in the form not of a movie but of a thoughtful reported piece in someplace like GQ or Esquire. A good development? A bad one? Where creativity goes generally, things these days feel a lot more open if also perhaps a lot less special than they used to — but, for me (and FWIW), I think it’s on balance a big change for the better. But then I’m someone who enjoys blogging a lot more than I ever liked writing for legit publications.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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9 Responses to “Tim’s Vermeer”

  1. amac78 says:

    Paleo —

    I stopped by and learned things about a topic that, minutes ago, I hadn’t known existed. This post is what a review ought to be: on topic yet suffused with informed opinion. Great stuff, and thanks for the fun read.

    In perhaps something of the same vein, I heartily recommend Particle Fever, the September 2013 documentary about CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and its discovery of (spoiler alert) the Higgs boson. While bigger of budget and more expansive in storytelling scope, Walter Murch (WSJ) and his fellow filmmakers faced the same problem as Penn & Teller when they started filming in 2007: they had no way of knowing how the plot line would turn out, or even if it would.

    The chosen physicist-spokespeople are appealing rather than eccentric, but the… impulse to sneeze… isn’t wholly absent here, either.


  2. Five Daarstens says:

    Vermeer also painted some outside paintings. Do they also claim he used a camera obscura for those?


    • We see the paintings and Tim Jemison visits the locations but the film never goes into what his thoughts are about how Vermeer executed those works. It’s sort of assumed that he used optical devices of some sort, though.


  3. Tarnished says:

    Wow, this was pretty amazing to read…and your post comes at a time when I was looking for a new “history controversy” to research. (Yes, I know…weird obsession, but you learn so many different viewpoints about the world we live in and the science behind the natural/human-made parts of it that you can’t help but get a little addicted!) The last thing I was researching was the new Mona Lisa that was discovered recently, so following up with more artistic history will be great.

    Thanks for such a spectacular post. 🙂


  4. Maule Driver says:

    As I prepare for a documentary film festival (Full Frame in Durham NC), and reflect on how much I enjoyed “Tim’s Vermeer”, I’m thinking that I will use the standard of, “un-tricky, un-conceptual, and un-meta” to assess the films.

    We really enjoyed the film but more important, 2 friends who knew nothing of the Vermeer controversy thoroughly enjoyed it too.

    Thanks for the illuminating critique.


    • Thanks for having a read. I was especially curious about your reaction to the movie, given your engineering-friendly brain. Fun to learn you’ve got a doc film festival to look forward to too. No matter how good or bad, docs nearly always leave a person with something to think about.


  5. Shelley says:

    watched this twice now. reminded me strangely of “Ridley Walker”
    I love obsessions and cherish a few of my own. does it matter what tools that Vermeer might have used? you use the best tools that you can get yer mits on. Is it possible to copy a Vermeer? sure, why not? is it possible to best him at his game? not without the genius that decided which tools to use.

    Liked by 2 people

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