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Tim’s Vermeer

Posted by martinteller on September 8, 2014

Like many art scholars, inventor and tech mogul Tim Jenison was mystified by how Johannes Vermeer was able to create such photorealistic paintings using 17th century tools.  Then he had a moment of inspiration: by combining traditional camera obscura technology with a simple small “comparison” mirror, he could paint on a canvas precisely what he was seeing, despite a lack of any artistic training.  It was merely a matter of matching the color.  With this revelation in hand, Tim set out to recreate Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson”, rebuilding the master’s studio in a Texas warehouse, down to the last detail, and spending months hunched over a mirror and a canvas.

Pretty neat, right?  Yep, it’s neat.  Tim’s discovery is a wonderful bit of art history detective work, and his dedication to the project is impressive.  The man has a lot of patience and drive.  Watching his painting develop is often fascinating, all those tiny, meticulous brush strokes aided through the use of ingenious technical trickery.

But that’s about all this adds up to: neat.  There’s so much missing from this story, or the telling of this story.  Tim has exactly one mildly emotional moment, and otherwise his endeavor comes off not as a passion project but a technical exercise, a bit of extravagant nerdery.  There’s so little human element.  There’s no drama.  There’s no tension.  From the moment Tim demonstrates his proof of concept — which happens maybe 10-15 minutes into the film — there’s no doubt he’s going to pull it off.  He’s proved his point, it’s a foregone conclusion.  We can see how well the technique works, all that’s needed is a lot of patience and resources.  We’re shown that Tim is a wealthy guy with free time on his hands, so there isn’t ever a stumbling block, a hesitation, an obstacle that we fear can’t be overcome.  A couple of times things go slightly awry, but they’re easily corrected through more technical analysis.  It’s a story of everything going pretty much exactly according to plan for a rich white male.

The film is narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller (no relation) of the magic team Penn & Teller.  Tim, you see, is Penn’s old buddy.  Great, good for them.  But perhaps Penn and Teller are too close to their subject.  Perhaps they can’t see the human side of this because they know him so well that they take his human qualities for granted.  It also doesn’t help that I really can’t stand Penn Jillette.  He’s a smug, condescending blowhard and his glib remarks irritate me.  He’s a bad narrator with an unpleasant voice, and he can’t seem to stop injecting himself into the discussion.  At the end, I don’t want to hear Jillette’s conclusions about the implications of this project (and his conclusions are scant), I want to hear from people this really matters to.

There are interesting questions about art and artistry that could be raised, but they’re mostly left untouched.  If Vermeer’s methods were so detached and technical, then does his mean his art is merely an exercise in craft, or isn’t there still passion and thought and meaning in his choice of subjects, his compositions, the context?  Does Tim’s achievement make him an artist on the level of Vermeer?  We get a couple of pithy comments from Jillette about blurring the line between artist and inventor, and they’re not bad observations, but I would much rather hear from more people who have a passionate investment in the subject, some scholarly insight, a philosophical viewpoint.  And although Tim’s results make a strong case that this is how Vermeer did his work — and apparently David Hockney agrees — how about an opposing viewpoint?

It’s all so damn dry and uninspiring, like a tech demo.  And so many missed opportunities.  Tim tells about being loopy from the fumes of a patio heater and absent-mindedly inserting an elephant into the painting.  We never see the elephant, which would have made a nice punchline to the funny story.  Tim makes his daughter, on a break from college, model for him in clamps and gizmos to hold her steady.  No one ever asks her how she feels about this treatment, or what she thinks of his work.  We just get a dumb one-liner from Jillette.  And about those clamps… if Tim is trying to recreate Vermeer’s methods, then is that his assumption for how Vermeer got his subjects to hold still?  No one asks.  Does Tim feel anything when he looks at Vermeer’s work besides intellectual curiosity about technique, a problem to be solved?  No one asks.  Most surprisingly, no one ever holds Tim’s work side-by-side with the original Vermeer to compare.  This seems like it would have been the most obvious thing to do, but it just never happens.  We’re left to wonder if there was some reason not to, or it’s just a massive oversight.

In such absence of philosophical or emotional curiosity about the subject, it comes off like another vanity project for Penn & Teller.  Look at this cool thing our pal did.  Isn’t it neat?  Yeah, but either there’s not enough of a real story there, or the filmmakers were incompetent at pursuing it.  As magicians whose specialty is exposing the magic, perhaps they felt just revealing the trick was compelling enough.  However, the overwhelming feeling at the end is… so what?  Rating: Poor (42)


Addendum: usually once I hit the “Publish” button, I’m done except for correcting typos. But there are a couple of things I forgot to mention in this already lengthy review…

1) Conrad Pope’s score is really fussy and distracting

2) I wish we had seen more of the stuff leading up to Tim’s mirror discovery.  There’s an interesting little bit about you can’t paint directly on a camera obscura projection because the only color that works is white… but after that, it jumps right to his revelation.  Were there other methods he tried?  Was there some process that led him to the mirror?  If we’re going to be nerdy about the subject, then let’s see a little more of his trial and error.

3 Responses to “Tim’s Vermeer”

  1. Disappointing. I really was hoping it was going to be better. Nice review.

  2. […] Photo: […]

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