So, the thing about Tim’s Vermeer? Tim Jenison, an inventor and video engineer working out of San Antonio, sounds like a superinteresting guy. He’s a longtime pal of the magicians Penn Jillette (the nonstop talker who narrates this documentary) and Teller (the professional nontalker who directs it). He cofounded the hardware and software company NewTek. And he’s invented cool stuff, like a lip-synching mechanical bird and an “electric moth.”
But while he’s an interesting guy, the documentary built around him becomes less and less so the longer it unwinds. Basically, it’s a tale, with diminishing returns, about a fellow who’s able to indulge a costly, time-consuming hobby, and the two Vegas personalities who also have the leisure to show him doing it.
In the early 2000s, Jenison — a rational, nonstop Mr. Figure-It-Out — became obsessed with trying to understand how 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer painted images that glowed with illusionistic detail. “It looks like it came out of a video camera,” he says of Vermeer’s work. With his professional background, Jenison should know.
No record exists of Vermeer’s artistic training, and strangely, underneath the finished brushstrokes of those masterpieces, no sign of sketching or first-draft compositions are detectable. So here’s the mystery: How could Vermeer simply brush such amazing, picture-perfect images directly onto the canvas with no apparent, established framework?
Jenison begins from the theory that Vermeer used an optical device called a camera obscura, a lensed gadget that basically projects an upside-down-and-backward image of the items and subjects in one room onto the surface of the structure on the other side of that lens. [Note: Abelardo Morell, whose retrospective is at the High Museum, is a contemporary camera obscura photographer.] Jenison thinks maybe Vermeer used a large version of this, and simply daubed his oils over the projected image. (Think of it as a sort of 17th-century paint-by-numbers.) That doesn’t turn out the way he thinks, so he moves on to invent another clever, relatively easy device using mirrors.
Statement of prejudice: I thought I would be one of those guys who resisted Jenison’s thesis just because I sort of do think artistic genius is something that can’t be entirely quantified in the terms that this theory traffics in. Many would agree with ArtsATL critic Donna Mintz, who said of Girl with a Pearl Earring — and by extension, all art — that there’s more to artistry than technique: “Few could deny the wonder of this painting or Vermeer’s mastery of illusionism, but ultimately it is the enigmatic expression on the face of a young girl that captivates us. Girl retains her power to enchant by her very ineffability.”
Jenison’s notion is completely plausible, though. Problem is, there’s no proof he’s right, any more than there’s proof that Vermeer was a savant who simply had a divine gift in his eyes and brushstrokes.
Tim’s Vermeer features a contemporary academic and an artist who themselves experienced push-back from art historians when they suggested that Vermeeer availed himself of some sort of technical assistance. Philip Steadman, who authored Vermeer’s Camera, and painter David Hockney, who wrote Secret Knowledge, meet Jenison in London to see the results of his paintwork. (And his painstaking results are impressive for an amateur.)
The problem is, the film gives little more for Steadman and Hockney to do but briefly stroke Jenison’s ego, then move out of camera range. There’s no real scholarship here, no contextualizing art history, no multiple interesting voices or competing theories. The movie spends most of its time on montages of Jenison obsessively recreating the furniture, props and costumes of The Music Lesson, then sitting down for more than half a year to try to re-create that painting himself.
Did Vermeer use optical tools to achieve his results, or did he not? I don’t know. This documentary didn’t invest me very deeply in that discovery, even though that seems to be its main purpose. No, it’s not as dull as watching paint dry. There’s something to admire in Jenison’s gumption and the near obsessiveness of his pursuit. His is an interesting experiment. It’s just not, after its setup, a very interesting movie.
Tim’s Vermeer. A documentary directed by Teller. 80 minutes. Rated PG-13. At Regal/UA Tara.