Tim’s Vermeer [Review by Haus]
Some films need no recommendation. You were going to see 12 Years a Slave whether or not we pumped it, and you probably saw Iron Man 3 despite our unforgivable failure to review it in these pages. But other movies fly a bit low and could use a hat-tip. Tim’s Vermeer is one.
This fascinating documentary chronicles Texas inventor Tim Jenison’s curious quest to recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. Unlike the hack ne’er-sold-nothings often saddled with the title, Tim is an inventor in the true sense — he founded several computer graphics companies (including Video Toaster and Lightwave), and has made a fair chunk of money from these besides. He’s also a consummate tinkerer. Inspired by a couple of books suggesting that the Dutch masters may have used optical tricks such as projection to enhance the realism of their works, Tim takes a closer look. He’s floored by Vermeer, particularly the way the artist captured near-photorealistic scenes without underlying sketches, and applied subtle variations of color in a way that stumps modern experts in human vision and cognition.
With a hunch that Vermeer may have leveraged some ingenious optics, Tim invents (or perhaps rediscovers?) a series of clever lens-and-mirror optical devices that enable him — a total rank beginner — to paint a stunning photo-real oil portrait of his father in law in five hours flat. Appetite whetted, Tim sets out to build a full-size mock up of Vermeer’s studio and the setting of The Music Lesson, and sets to work to see if he can “paint a Vermeer.”
This film chronicles that journey. Months and years later, the result is truly remarkable.
Tim is a marvelous subject in a clean film, one sprinkled with expert interviews and just enough levity to buoy it along. Tim’s pals Penn and Teller produced and directed, respectively, which of course raises some F for Fake type warning flags — but it all seems real enough.
The film treads hard on some hallowed ground, and some will complain that it suggests the unthinkable: that Vermeer himself was merely a dedicated automaton, albeit one perched behind a clever invention. On the contrary, I think Vermeer emerges all the more fascinating — his careful compositions and his terrific toils to capture them enhanced by the top gadgets of the day. In a world of 17th century Disney, he was Pixar.
Tim’s Vermeer is not without questions — if his seahorses came out curved, isn’t that because Tim simply enlarged and printed a scan of the painting? — but on the whole it’s geek heaven and a fabulous treatise on art as technology (and vice versa). And I can only hope that I someday have the resources and time to chase my own rabbits all the way down their holes. Or maybe that, but in a way that doesn’t sound gross.
Haus Verdict: A wonderful documentary on a fascinating subject. History, art, technology, invention, and wonder. See this.