MRR Review: "Tim's Vermeer"

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Inventor Tim Jenison seeks to understand the painting techniques used by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer.
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Rating: PG-13
Length: 80 minutes
Release Date: October 03, 2013
Directed by: Teller
Genre: Documentary

The ways in which seemingly mundane subjects can become exciting roller coaster rides are surprising. "Tim's Vermeer," a documentary about the painting techniques of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, is a great example of this principle. On the surface, the subject of old painting techniques sounds esoteric and dull for an outsider. However, it becomes apparent shortly into the documentary that there is far more to the subject than meets the eye.

When dealing with a seemingly uninteresting subject, hooking the audience quickly is more crucial than ever. Thankfully, "Tim's Vermeer" benefits from a cast and crew that know how to accomplish just that. Both halves of the famous magic-comic duo Penn & Teller worked on this film. Teller, who has previously worked on successes like "Fantasia 2000," directed the film, and Penn Jilette produced it. Evidently, Jilette had been a friend of Jenison's for a long time, and the idea behind "Tim's Vermeer" fascinated him. Additionally, Tim Jenison, for whom the film is partly named, does a lot for the film's intrigue as its principal investigator. A Texas inventor and computer graphics designer, he brings a unique personality and mindset to the world of art.

It quickly becomes clear through expert framing on the writers' parts that the question "Tim's Vermeer" investigates is not boring or esoteric in the least. Tim Jenison wants to know this: did Johannes Vermeer cheat on his paintings? The accusation is not as inflammatory as it sounds. A self-proclaimed non-painter, Jenison does not seek to call into question Vermeer's genius and talent for composition. Rather, he wants to know exactly how Johannes Vermeer, a 17th-century painter, created such photorealistic paintings long before the invention of modern photography. Interestingly, x-ray images of Vermeer's paintings reveal no sketching, which is the standard way for a painter to start filling in a large canvas. It is not a stretch to believe that Vermeer had some help.

Superhuman talent could have accounted for Vermeer's paintings, but Jenison's theory centers around an old device called the camera obscura. The camera obscura varies from design to design, but the basic principle is always the same. It is a dark room or box with a small pinhole in its side. That small pinhole carries in light from outside, projecting an image of what it faces rotated 180 degrees. From that concept, it isn't hard to see where Jenison is going. He believes that Vermeer must have used a similar but more sophisticated device to facilitate the creation of his paintings, including his famous work "The Music Lesson."

Naturally, the leap between a rudimentary camera obscura used for simple tracings and a hypothetical device used by Vermeer to produce beautiful works of art is a big one. However, it is a leap that Jenison's background is precisely equipped to handle. He is an inventor and an engineer, and he also lacks painting skill.

While he cannot prove for certain that Vermeer used a camera obscura-inspired device to produce his magnificent paintings, he can prove the possibility. His lack of skill at art helps add credibility to his attempts to show that. After all, if a method like he describes allows him to produce photorealistic paintings despite his lack of skill, it is not a far cry to say that perhaps the same method could aid a master.

What follows is a joy to watch on many levels. Jenison journeys to the artist's hometown in Delft, The Netherlands, with hope of producing his own Vermeer. In attempts to model "The Music Lesson," he goes to painstaking lengths to ensure that he uses only materials and techniques available to a 17th century painter. At first, he meets little success with a basic camera obscura. When he traces the image, he gets something very lifeless. Eventually, a solution comes to him: concave mirrors. Suddenly, with the addition of properly oriented mirrors, everything comes together. Although the painting takes months, he is able to replicate a Vermeer by tracing a projected image.

All of this has fascinating implications for viewers, especially those interested in art. Does Vermeer's use of technology constitute a crutch? Does it make his work less valuable? Perhaps that is not so. If Vermeer used a similar technique, it shows a remarkable ingenuity that other artists lacked. Additionally, no machine could have given Vermeer his amazing eye for composition and light. His use of mechanical aids to make his visions a reality is a unique stroke of genius. In a way, Vermeer could have been the world's first photographer.

"Tim's Vermeer" is a fantastic documentary that takes an esoteric-sounding subject and gives it life. While watching it, it's easy to feel connected to the artist despite his age. By showing his audience the process Vermeer used, Tim Jenison also gives viewers a glimpse into a mind far ahead of its time. The fantastic production and direction done by Penn & Teller ties it all up into an exciting package. Even if viewers are, like Jenison, self-proclaimed non-artists, this film is almost sure to engross.

Rating: 4 out of 5