Directed by: Teller
Starring: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney, Colin Blakemore
Tim Jenison is an inventor. He is the founder of the company NewTek which produces LightWave which is used for 3D animation. He also created Video Toaster which was essentially the first computer editing system for Television. With a love for art and specifically the creations of Vermeer he sets off to discover how Vermeer was able to create such realistic pieces while other artists of the time were not as advanced.
The story so far is Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer never took notes on his technique. Most master painters of his time and before were usually apprenticed and strict journals were kept documenting what was taught, as well as the day to day of how they worked. There was none of this for Vermeer. No one knows who he apprenticed with; no one knows how he was able to create such life like compositions, nor how he was able to capture the quality of light which no other artist had come to recreate as well as he.
After reading David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, and taking a rather productive bath, Tim believes he might have figured out Vermeer’s trick. Mirrors. Mirrors and a version of Camera Obscura. Thus beginning his 5 year journey that started out as a scientific experiment which ended up being a lesson in passion and perseverance.
Tim tells us right up front that he is not an artist. He has never painted before, nor has he had any inclination to try. This experiment is simply that: an experiment. He sees a problem, has come up with the solution, and is now ready to prove it. Hypothesis, observation, conclusion. This is a science experiment that will take five years of his life (almost 2000 days). It has changed him, affected him to his core to the extent that when he reveals his reproduction of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, he is moved to tears…. and so are we.
A likeable character who of which is easy to root for. We feel for him when a window blind falls next to his painting workspace and might have moved the ever precise placement, we cross our fingers for luck as he waits for the Queen of England to allow him to have a private viewing of the original The Music Lesson, and! when he is on day who knows what of painting hundreds of intricate dots on a persian rug and he admits that if the camera’s were not present he might have given up, we feel for him. Yet he never gives up. He never takes a break.
“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”
Thomas A. Edison
An interesting thing about this film is the voice over work of Penn Jillette, a born storyteller who has performed for well on forty years, and as the guide for Tim’s Vermeer he does a wonderful thing: he keeps the audience at ease. His respect for his close friend Tim, and his love for the subject matter turns what could have been a stuffy doc about a man obsessed with painting to a wonderful story that feels like it could have been told over a beer on a back porch somewhere. And yet, this comfortable, conversational exposition doesn’t detract from Tim’s struggles- and he has many- it genuinely gives them more weight.
Perhaps, the only thing that keeps Tim’s Vermeer from attaining greatness is the presumed realization the filmmakers had when they realized the film was not necessarily about debunking Vermeer, so to speak, but witnessing the sheer force of will that, not just one human being has in them, but all humans. It would appear the documentarians’ plan to complete a video record of Tim Jenison conducting his experiment is hijack when, around the time Tim cuts his lathe in half in order to make it longer, they witnessed the true spirit of one man on a mission.
Of course, in the beginning most documentaries do take on an amorphous quality while the documentarians flit around their “subject” until the story is truly revealed. Coming at it with an idea and then discovering the true impetus all along. Arguably, what might have begun as a long-form episode of Penn & Teller’s TV series Bullshit, compounded onto itself in to a moving tale of passion.
The unfortunate future for this film is it might be buried by the Vermeer scholars who take offence in Vermeer’s stead that a self professed novice artist could replicate the master painter so well by breaking his work down to something akin to colour by numbers, that the broader audience may never see it. What the self proclaimed advocates of Vermeer’s might be missing is that Tim Jenison is not stating that Vermeer or any other artist of that time actually used these cheats specifically, but that, like science, he is expounding a possible solution. Vermeer may have used some, none, or all of Tim’s contraptions but since there is no written record of Vermeer and his habits this may be the best explanation.
But it is not about that…. not really.
This film that is as much inspiring as it is a stark reminder that we may not be fulfilling our potential is altogether a remarkable film worthy of multiple viewings and causing such emotional joy from human achievement as Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. A tremendous effort that might have begun as a home movie but quickly became a lesson in tenacity and possibility.