The Movie Waffler Documentary Review - <i>Tim's Vermeer</i> | The Movie Waffler

Documentary Review - Tim's Vermeer

An engineer with no artistic training attempts to recreate the unique work of the famed Dutch painter through scientific methods.

Directed by: Teller
Featuring: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Colin Blakemore, David Hockney, Philip Steadman

Tim’s Vermeer is a surprising documentary about art, curiosity and the scientific method. If you only know Penn and Teller - the producers and latterly director, of the film  – from their comedy stage-magic act, then you might be especially surprised by the thoughtfulness and seriousness with which they treat their subject matter, but if you’re more familiar with them for their devoted involvement with James Randi or their documentary series Bullshit!, then this film will fit your understanding nicely, and hopefully enhance it.
The subject of the film is Tim Jenison, technologist, inventor and founder of NewTek, a pioneering technology house that made its name developing industry-standard tech for audio-visual production. Tim is a close friend of Penn Jillete, who also narrates and features in the film. The other "subject" of the film is Art, specifically the art of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th Century Dutch painter who has long mystified the art world with the verisimilitude of his paintings, particularly their eerily accurate rendition of natural light. 
As an engineer with extensive experience in video and film, Tim Jenison became fascinated by this mystery of technique, but unlike many art critics, Tim is a thorough-bred rationalist, not much in love with inexplicable mysteries. Early in the film, Tim declares his intention for the camera: “I’m going to paint a Vermeer.” He has no art background or training, beyond essential technical drawing skills, and he sets himself the challenge of keeping to as close to how Vermeer must have worked as has been deduced: for instance, x-rays have revealed no guiding structure in rough under Vermeer’s oils, so preliminary sketching is out. Vermeer’s exact method is thought to be a trade secret, since no notes are extant that reveal his methods. Tim, however, has an idea, and the methodical unfolding of his insights and strategies are what structure the film's own unfolding.
This is a film of inspired conjecture, and the film makers do their best to stay out of the way of an involved subject while making a very technical set of procedures easy to follow and interesting, especially if you have a geeky engineering streak but little scientific training. The directing is crisp and unflashy, without being completely artless. The score is a sort of orchestral-jazz/classical fusion, which gives colour to machine-shop sequences and elaborate animations about Camera Obscuras, optics and lenses. 
Tim’s dedication to the project is intense, and given his personal wealth, he’s able to go deep and wide in terms of process, grinding pigments to make his own period-authentic paints, grinding lenses and polishing mirrors as he tries to reverse-engineer Vermeer’s process. There’s a strange blokey kind of sensuousness to the machine-shop sequences, and the film is humourous, although at times almost emotionally repressed: that is, up until a moment or two close to the end, which were wise inclusions.
It might be a bit too much of a Boy’s film for some, but it’s hardly 300. There are a few occasions where the film drags as the experiment deepens, but there are also occasions where music, antique costume and procedural bizzareness blend to create something very unique. If you’re a great believer in the Mystery of Art and artistic creation, you might resent the agenda behind the film, but you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll see first-hand the power of Art to affect the emotions of even the most hard-headed of rationalists.

Rúairí Conneely