‘Tim’s Vermeer’ finds Penn & Teller switching off their irreverence

Tim Jenison tries to prove that certain Renaissance painters created their works with an elaborate system of optics in "Tim's Vermeer." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Tim Jenison tries to prove that certain post-Renaissance painters created their works with an elaborate system of optics in “Tim’s Vermeer.”
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

‘Tim’s Vermeer’
Director: Teller
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

Only one thing happens in “Tim’s Vermeer,” and it’s a doozy: One Tim Jenison makes a Vermeer. In the ‘80s, Jenison founded a software company that specialized in early digital video. It made him rich, and given infinite time and resources to do whatever he wants, he chose a righteous path: He became interested in a theory, advanced by the artist David Hockney and physicist and Charles M. Falco, that certain photo-realistic immediately post-Renaissance-era paintings, particularly those by Johannes Vermeer, may have been created with the use of early optics. Basically, the theory alleges, Vermeer and those like him were able to paint exactly what they saw as it was reflected in a lens hovering over their canvas, essentially taking a picture with their hands.

That doesn’t mean it was easy. The majority of “Tim’s Vermeer”’s admittedly short length is devoted to Jenison — who has zero formal training or history with painting — recreating “The Music Lesson.” This requires, first, painstakingly recreating the scene in real life, so that it may be copied, and then actually doing the ridiculous grunt work of painting every last inch of what Jenison sees refracted through his lens.

Does Jenison prove the Hockney-Falco thesis? And if he does, does that discredit the work of Vermeer and his ilk? The film is the latest by Penn & Teller (though only the latter directed), who apart from being magicians are master debunkers, whose skeptic show “Bulls—!“ gleefully dismantled myths, both generally mocked and generally agreed upon. But “Tim’s Vermeer” lacks precisely all of their irreverence. They’re good friends with Jenison, which may explain why they go easy on him. Or it may be that they find something else of merit in his work, one that taps into another, warmer side of their yen for the stubbornly logical.

Indeed, most of the film hunkers down with Jenison, observing as he tirelessly, brush by brush, concocts his semi-forgery. It’s more meditative than ruminative, which makes sense. Technically, Jenison comes as close as he’s going to in proving Hockney and Falco right early on, when he paints a work that is absolutely identical to an old photograph. Actually recreating a Vermeer work is just a technicality.

If it proves Hockney’s right — and given the paucity of details about Vermeer’s life and working methods, a definitive answer is unlikely, if not impossible — it only means that it took Vermeer at least as long as Jenison to paint his masterpiece. As with many good film, it’s the destination, not the outcome, that matters, and “Tim’s Vermeer” has the spacious room to allow one to get lost in one man’s impressively herculean busy work.


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