The Painting Lesson, by David Bax
The memory of the occasionally great, occasionally stupid Showtime series, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, might cause some viewers to go into Teller’s new documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, with the wrong idea. The subject of the film may be an attempt to recreate a Johannes Vermeer painting using technology that would have been available to the artist in his day but this is no smear job. Teller and company have no desire to reveal Vermeer as a hoax. On the contrary, they aim to celebrate his ingenuity as an artist and to shine a light on largely ignored ways that art can be art.
Tim Jenison is an inventor, a self-made wealthy person and a complete nerd. Like any true nerd, his life is often dominated by his obsessions, one of which is with Vermeer. Jenison believes that Vermeer used a camera obscura to project staged images which he then used as the basis for his stunningly lifelike paintings. In this, Jenison is far from alone. But he doesn’t stop there. He hypothesizes that Vermeer also used a mirror to reflect the image directly above his canvas, which he then color-matched to translate what he saw with superhuman fidelity. Essentially, Tim Jenison posits that Vermeer turned himself into the camera.
Jenison’s goal is to research as much as he can about Vermeer and where he painted, construct a replica of the room depicted in The Music Lesson and then painstakingly recreate the painting, brushstroke by brushstroke, using the methodology he presumes Vermeer to have used. The whole process takes Jenison a little over five years but Teller presents it to us in the zippy and deceptively palatable manner we’ve come to associate with the magician duo, fitting the whole journey into about 80 minutes. Penn Jillette, being the only one who talks (not to mention being enough of a loudmouth to represent at least four silent partners), is often mistakenly viewed as the act’s leader. In his direction here, Teller proves that he is equally complicit in their established tone of making big ideas easy and fun, while maintaining the mystery that they may just be fucking with you.
Speaking of Penn’s loud mouth, it provides the film’s narration as well as conducting some of the interviews and appearing as a talking head (the whole head, not just the mouth). Jillette’s voice, with its huckster blare and phlegmy laugh, may not always be for everyone. But, as mentioned, the film does not overstay its welcome and Teller trusts the subject matter enough to know when to keep Penn out of the way.
While that subject matter may be the recreation of The Music Lesson, the literal subject of the film is Jenison. While he may possess many of the traits and interests of your standard nerd, he does not have the awkwardness common to the species. Instead, he is charming and funny with the confidence of a rich man but not the arrogance. You know how they say that poor people are crazy but rich people are eccentric? They’re talking about Tim Jenison.
So we’ve covered the subject and subject matter. But the most important ingredient herein is the theme. Teller takes direct, overt aim at the calcified dogma that science and technology belong to one camp while art and creativity belong to another. Those of us dedicated to cinema, an artistic medium that relies on technology, should be the most open to the film’s assertion that they can be one and the same. This is why it’s laughably discouraging that so many of the negative reviews of Tim’s Vermeer seem to have missed this point completely, insisting on the ways that Vermeer’s talent lay outside or above mere mechanics. The truth of the matter is that, like with all works of art, the only truly important thing is the finished product. Art is art no matter how it was created. Tim’s Vermeer spends nearly an hour and a half telling us in detail how Vermeer may have worked, only to remind us in the end that it doesn’t matter. I guess Teller was fucking with us all along.