The Film: Tim’s Vermeer (2013)
The Principles: Directed by Teller. Acted by Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull, Phillip Steadman, David Hockney, Collin Blakemore and Teller.
The Premise: Tim Jenison is an inventor who tries to reverse engineer what he imagines were the techniques used by Dutch master, Johanes Vermeer. He spends many years doing this…
Is It Good?: Like The Source Family, its subject is impressive, elevating a traditionally composed documentary to a higher plane of “goodness.” And like that movie, the underlying question of “why?” permeates nearly every scene. Here, the “why?” is somehow more fascinating, because Tim’s obsessive behavior isn’t in the pursuit of a clear reward (i.e. not in the same way that becoming the leader of a cult is a “reward”). Watching this man develop a basic (I used that word loosely) painting method that maybe—and really, who the fuck knows—replicates something Vermeer did to achieve his photo-like accuracy, is only the beginning of a thought experiment that runs totally out of control. Again, why? For this non-painter to match a master? Sure, but again, why?
And to that end, there’s something dopey about Teller’s (and Tim’s, I guess) insistence on pointing out the many, sometimes compelling bits of evidence that suggest Tim’s method is an accurate recreation of Vermeer’s. It’s understandable that Tim might get caught up in that idea. He’s an engineer. But any truth to be found in this documentary exists in watching Tim follow through on his convictions, not the convictions themselves. It’s a movie about obsessiveness and supplication leading to something divine. Tim turns himself into the world’s nerdiest laser jet printer. That’s the story! It’s not the shocking story of how some guy cracked Vermeer’s code. If the movie has a flaw, its that these moments confuse the narrative (and/or try to contort the story into something else).
Really, the movie is at it’s best when it follows Tim’s process and allows you to see things through his eyes. When he starts sawing his lathe in half because it’s the only way to get the precise cut he needs for the chair leg that he’s recreating for the life-size version of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson”…well, you get the idea, right? It sounds crazy to describe, but the more of those minute details were given, the more we understand why these things have to be done in order to make this fucking painting. I’m by no means a perfectionist, but these moments spoke to me. Likewise, the repetitive nature of Tim’s work—his hunched shoulders as he stippled in the detail on a particular portion of the painting—made my back ache, but I understood that at this stage, he couldn’t do it any other way. Tim tells the camera he’d quit the project if it were’t for the documentary being filmed, but a day later he realizes that the source of his apathy and despair came from a problem with the painting. He bumped the lens he was using. To an ordered mind, things like that make you want to give up all hope. Watching Tim rebound after this revelation felt like seeing someone shape shift. It’s powerful shit!
Random Anecdotes: The Penn and Teller-ness of it all is on the back burner, despite Penn’s occasional on-camera narration. The worst scene, unsurprisingly, has the two pantomiming faux outrage in front of Buckingham Palace because they’ve been told they can’t go inside to view “The Music Lesson.” The phoniness gets magnified a second later when Tim, after having viewed the actual painting for the first time in his life, is left speechless by it. What was the fucking point?
I’m a Chuck Close fan and his method for creating “photo-real” paintings is not far off from what Tim comes up with. Close’s stuff is incredible and if you haven’t seen it, you must. Seek that shit out!
Is It Worth A Look?: For sure. I gripe a lot about the distracting elements, but once the film gets into the last hour, we’re mostly just left with Tim and his painting. That’s where I wanted to be and I got plenty of it. This is also just such an insane project, you have to see it at least once.
Cinematic Soulmates: F is for Fake, In The Realms of the Unreal, Fitzcaraldo.