Made by legendary bullshit busting magicians Penn & Teller, Tim’s Vermeer already looks like not just one of the best documentaries at TIFF this year, but possible one of the best films of the year, full stop. Like all of the best docs, it’s a unique story that would probably be unbelievable were it not factual. And like all Penn & Teller projects it’s flippantly funny, weirdly revealing, and always magical. You wouldn’t think that a movie about a computer genius with too much time on his hands recreating a Dutch master’s painting could be this entertaining, but you also wouldn’t think Penn & Teller would make a movie about it. So, I guess the whole thing is filled with surprises, isn’t it? Hit the jump for more.
Dutch master Johannes Vermeer is an artist who has confounded and thrilled art historians for generations. His work boats a level of detail and realism so remarkable that he’s developed a reputation for “painting with light” and no one is quite sure how he pulled off his finest works. Some recent art historians started to wonder if Vermeer was possibly using a camera obscura to project images for detailed reproduction on a canvas. Most of these theories are dismissed as “cheating” by short-sighted experts and it’s generally not taken seriously. Enter Tim Jenison, a computer genius and optics expert fascinated by Vermeer’s unique work. Jenison’s years of experience with photography led him to notice how most of Vermeer’s work depicts light in a similar way to how digital and video technology deconstructs it through a lens. He also happens to be a bit of an inventor himself and creates a small piece of equipment using a few mirrors and lenses that allows him to perfectly recreate a photograph in paint by simply matching shades and colors one thin line at a time. He’s also never painted before, but when experts (including rather amusingly Martin Mull) look at what he created, they can’t deny that the results are remarkable.
And so Tim Jenison begins on a quest. He will recreate a Vermeer painting on his own using his invention. His lack of experience in painting shouldn’t matter since if his theory is correct, Vermeer was always more of an ingenious technician and craftsman than painting prodigy, and Tim is certainly that. He also plans on meticulously recreating Vermeer’s studio and working exclusively with tools and materials that Vermeer had access to at the time. Fortunately, Tim is also a self-made millionaire with just the right combination of talent, drive, ambition, eccentricity and free time to pull it off. And so Tim Jenison sets out on a quest to recreate his own Vermeer painting and his old buddies Penn & Teller are on hand with cameras to film the entire process.
It’s certainly a unique and bizarre story, but also a fascinating one. What sounds like a painfully niche subject for painting snobs only actually emerges as a universal and even beautiful story about creation and imagination. Tim’s conviction and dedication to his task is remarkable, the results of what he produces are absolutely astounding. The journey is a long one, but worth the ride given the results. As to where Penn & Teller come into the play, aside from voiceover and the occasional on camera appearance, it’s all about tone. The film is filled with their humor, which is pretty important given that there are literally scenes in the movie about watching paint dry. But more than that, throughout their career Penn & Teller have been interested in exposing how tricks are pulled off and deconstructing false truths. Tim’s Vermeer fits into that career long mandate perfectly and might even be one of the best things they’ve ever put their name on.
In a way, Tim’s Vermeer works like a perfect Penn & Teller illusion from their act. They show you how a trick is done, even giggle at the mechanics and absurdity of it. Yet, what’s required to pull off trick is so remarkable on it’s own that the result is even more magical than if you didn’t know how the sausage was made. It’s a funny, sweet, endearing, and even moving doc directed with style by first timer Teller. It’s good enough to suggest that Penn & Teller could have a healthy filmmaking career ahead of them if they ever decide to give up the Vegas millions. Of course the challenge would be finding another subject this compelling, but given that Tim Jenison has plenty of free time on his hands again now never seems short on outlandishly pet projects projects, it might happen sooner than you’d think.