It would be easy to pithily dismiss a documentary like Tim’s Vermeer, the feature directorial debut of Teller from noted magician and pundit duo Penn and Teller, as something akin of a Mythbusters-styled lark, or even worse as a filming of a forgery. But as with the great work of art the film’s protagonist is trying to understand, there’s a far deeper meaning on scientific, emotional, and artistic levels coming into play. This story of one man’s obsession with understanding the detail oriented artistic eye of noted Dutch master Johannes Vermeer is as rich and detailed as the very work it’s trying to understand.
Penn Jillette (who appears on camera as an interview subject and functions as a producer and narrator) and silent partner Teller (who appears on camera only briefly) follow around one of their best friends, noted visual effects maven and inventor Tim Jenison, as he sets out on what might be his most demanding and time consuming project yet. Obsessed with the idea that in order to create some of his most famous and lifelike paintings Vermeer crafted for himself a sort of Camera Obsura-like device with mirrors that would serve as one of the earliest examples of technology influencing art, Tim sets out to recreate one of the artist’s most famous works – The Music Lesson – on his own and just for the heck of it. Adhering to only the strictest rules of construction and not getting too much help from all but the most progressive members and scholars of the art community, Tim recreates the setting in which Vermeer would have painted the piece in his hometown to exacting specification: constructing chairs, lenses, and paints all by hand.
Jenison, who is not himself an actual painter or artists by his own admission, has crafted a theory that seems almost immediately plausible, if more than a little time consuming. Without ever fully knowing how Vermeer actually worked, the film becomes more about applying the theory to an admittedly more modernist recreation, but that doesn’t make the film around it any less interesting. Daring to broach the fine line between art and technology that many fine arts purists think should never be crossed, at the very least Tim has created something groundbreaking in his own right even if it wasn’t what Vermeer had done himself and that the master painter was somehow preternaturally just that darn good at what he did.
But instead of devoting all his time and energy into merely ripping the lid off of a century’s old secret, Teller wisely focuses on Jenison as a human being with an almost insatiable drive to create and to constantly push himself into trying increasingly difficult and personally fulfilling projects. Jenison is the type of person who will constantly say in a joking fashion that he’s going to quit what he’s working on and walk away, but those jokes almost work as self-deprecating jabs that just make him start working even harder. It’s shown at one point that Tim even enlists one of his daughter’s to be a live model (at one point hilariously sneaking in a few sips of non-very-period-accurate Diet Coke), and the film briefly hints at Tim’s life outside of his current project. More of that and how such a detail oriented person deals with his own personal life would have been appreciated, but it does well enough on its own by just sticking to the facts and amassing plenty of evidence that many skeptics (Penn included) would deem as being pretty irrefutable.