Billed as “a Penn & Teller film,” Tim’s Vermeer gets its dazzle not from the two magicians performing their guerrilla-humored trickery, but via a documentary investigation of a mystery in the annals of Western art, and a man’s obsession with recreating the birth of a masterpiece. Video technologist, inventor, and self-made millionaire Tim Jenison, friend of narrator Penn Jillette, seeks to expand on critical speculation that Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer achieved the unprecedented luminosity and singular tones of his interior scenes by using contemporaneous state-of-the-art lenses and an optical device similar to the camera obscura. “Was Vermeer a machine?” ask Jenison and the filmmakers at the outset, and once the wealthy hobbyist has fashioned a projector-mirror gizmo that makes “objective” brushstrokes atop its beamed image possible, he determines to paint his own painstaking version of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. For full credibility, Jenison meticulously designs a replica of the room in which the original was created, and uses only the materials and technology that were available to the artist in the 17th century.
Beyond the riddle of Vermeer’s methods (no record of his serving a customary artistic apprenticeship exists, and x-rays of his canvases don’t show any underlying sketches), Jenison’s doggedness in testing his hypothesis adds passion to what could otherwise be a speculative, academic debate. As he decamps to Vermeer’s native Delft to do research, sounds out his idea’s legitimacy with artist David Hockney and scholar Philip Steadman (both believers in the use of opticals in Dutch art), and begins to build furniture and grind paint with trial-and-error resolve, Jenison chips away at rich-man-at-play caveats about his project. (He’s enough of a star presence that Jillette and director Teller stay out of the spotlight; the duo’s scripted rant against Queen Elizabeth when Jenison is temporarily denied a viewing of The Music Lesson in Buckingham Palace is wisely truncated.) Jenison is no holy fool, but a studious believer; he yearns for a better understanding of who Vermeer was, and if holding the paintbrush in place of his hero is partly wish-fulfillment, it seems a pleasure to which he’s entitled.
Tim’s Vermeer chronicles the quest of a self-described “geek,” and there are pleasurable frissons of discovery in the detective work, as when the edge of a blue garment in The Music Lesson has the same distorted outline (a “chromatic aberration”) that is only produced by a man-made lens, not the human eye. With his warehouse-built room ready, Jenison’s actual painting stretches into months, and while he’s relentless about the details, to the point of putting his college-age daughter in a head clamp so she can model for hours, the film’s ultimate drama comes from the attrition of daily, detailed work wearing him down. (He allows that he’d pull the plug if a film wasn’t being made.) When Tim’s simulacrum is complete, the debate over whether his plausible theory in any way reduces Vermeer’s reputation can continue, but Jenison’s tears at the scale of his commitment, and the beauty that inspired it, are cathartic.