REVIEW: Tim’s Vermeer

9 06 2014

Tim's VermeerDocumentaries can sometimes get a bad rep as boring, no doubt due to the success of films based on Al Gore lectures and other intricate political exposés.  But many people tend to forget that much of what they watch on television is in the same vein of non-fiction storytelling.  I’m not talking the fabricated “realities” of the Kardashians; I’m referring to programming on channels like Discovery and History that set out to inform while they entertain.

“Tim’s Vermeer” is a film of such pedigree, balancing intelligent contemplation and showmanship with poise.  This strength is no doubt derived from the talents of Penn and Teller, clever magicians whose act has always been a similar high-wire act.   They take what is essentially a feature-length episode of “MythBusters” and use it as an opportunity to begin a discussion the interrelation, as opposed to the stratification, of art and science.

Their subject, Tim Jenison, is a brilliant inventor looking for a new project.  Rather than looking to the sciences, he turns to the mystery of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.  This masterful Baroque artist has long puzzled scholars with the uncanny verisimilitude of his works, and Tim seeks an explanation using technology.  He looks to the camera obscura (a tool important in the birth of cinema), which employs a mirror at a 45º angle, as a potential mechanism through which Vermeer could have essentially copied an image onto the canvas.

So was Vermeer a machine?  A photographer with a paintbrush, predating the birth of that medium by a century?  There’s only one way to find out: Tim sets out to use the camera obscura to create his own rendition of one of Vermeer’s famous paintings.  The task enters the realm of the obsessive as Tim has to recreate the room as well as all its furnishings from scratch … and then he has to sit there for days on end to paint it.

You can see the results for yourself by watching “Tim’s Vermeer,” which runs all of 80 minutes but packs the heft of documentaries that run an hour longer.  Penn and Teller don’t force some grandiose conclusion on Tim’s tale, but his quest will ask you to rethink the nature of the artist altogether by the end.  A-3halfstars