Directed by: Teller.
Featuring: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Teller.
What constitutes art? What is it about great paintings that makes them great? Is it the image itself? The themes of the painting – what it means? Is it the process by which it was created? And if someone can recreate a painting exactly as the original artist did, does that in any way diminish the achievement of that artist? The fascinating documentary Tim’s Vermeer asks these questions. Tim Jenison is a rather eccentric mechanical genius – who has spent his life designing different devices for filmmaking and other industries who became fascinated by paintings – especially the work of Dutch master Vermeer. Namely, he wanted to know how Vermeer achieved the unique look of his paintings – which look almost like photographs. He became even more interested when he discovered that when Vermeer’s paintings were x-rayed, there were no pencil sketches beneath the paint. Did Vermeer simply freehand some of the greatest paintings in history? There are lots of theories about how Vermeer achieved his paintings – with many believing that he used different lens and mirrors – to project an image onto his canvas so he could paint what he saw – but until Jenison came along, no one could quite explain how he did it. Jenison thinks he has found the process Vermeer used – and for more than a year, he slaved away trying to recreate one of Vermeer’s paintings to prove his theory correct. In the end, you have to admit its pretty convincing.
The film was directed by Teller – and his more talkative partner Penn walks us through the various processes that people believe Vermeer did – and then talks to Jenison about his rather ingenious, if somewhat insane goal of creating his own Vermeer. The early parts of the documentary are the most fascinating – as we learn about Vermeer and Jenison, and we see Jenison’s early “test runs” – working off black and white photographs – to recreate the images, even if, as Jenison himself admits, he’s not much of an artist. When the movie settles down in its back half, to Jenison meticulously trying to recreate a famous Vermeer painting it gets a little dull. Filmmakers have always struggled with a way to make painting in the movies seem cinematic and exciting – but the truth remains there isn’t much they can do – it’s always going to be an artist alone with his easel, canvas and paint slaving away.
Some have taken offense to Jenison’s suggestion of how Vermeer achieved his paintings look, and feel it’s disrespectful to try and recreate one. That if someone who has little artistic ability like Jenison can do the same thing that Vermeer did, than that somehow diminishes Vermeer’s achievement. That’s not the feeling I got from the movie. I think what director Teller is really trying to show in the movie is not necessarily the art itself – but the process by which art is created. Great artists – whether they are painters or filmmakers or actors or yes, magicians – have a way of making what they do appear effortless – but the reality is to be truly great, you have to work hard it. Like many people say they worked for years to become an “overnight success”, the truth is that a lot of effort goes into making something look effortless. If Vermeer really did use the process Jenison thinks he did – and there’s no real way of proving it – than he didn’t do it because it was “easier” or even less time consuming. He did it because he wanted his paintings to look a certain way – and he found a way, using the technology of his time, to achieve what he wanted. Even Jenison admits that any artistic value that his copy of Vermeer has belongs to Vermeer himself, and not Jenison. He was the one who came up with the image.
Tim’s Vermeer is ultimately the kind of documentary that to me is more fascinating to talk about than it is to watch. The film is only 84 minutes long, but even that feels like it’s a little too long – with a few too many scenes of Jenison doing the same thing over and over again. I think that’s part of Teller’s point – he wants to convey the effort that goes into creating the painting, and in that he succeeds. It’s just not always that interesting to watch. But overall it’s a fascinating little documentary about the artistic process.