Sunday, March 30, 2014

Tim's Vermeer Movie Review

In the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, a graphic artist and techno-geek named Tim Jenison posits a theory, also held by art historian David Hockney, that 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted his compositions using a combination of lenses and mirrors to so accurately represent the photo-natural colors and lighting of his subjects. Jenison takes his hypothesis to obsessive extremes by attempting to painstakingly recreated Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” using methods that would have been available to the artist in his own time. He rebuilds the room where the original was painted. He builds the furniture, has the costumes made, and very carefully places everything just so.

The whole idea seems at first to be one of those skeptic’s dream tales that strips the veneer off of inexplicable talent. That the film was produced by entertainer-magician Penn Jillette and directed by his partner Teller doesn’t’ help allay that suspicion. Knowing their work, I kept half expecting them to reveal we’d been the butt of a cruel joke. But alas, this is an earnest documentary and perhaps less interesting as a result. There could have been something so subversive in a documentary that tries to draw us into a belief system with false facts and then tear it down with a crashing blow.

The hypothesis challenges artists and art historians in an uncomfortable way, forcing them to confront the possibility that a revered artist was not trained at all, but produced his work by mechanical means. In that sense, the subject matter is right up Penn and Teller’s alley. That Jenison reproduces what appears to be a near-perfect replica of “The Music Lesson” is certainly suggestive even if it’s not proof positive that Vermeer used such a method. It is telling, perhaps, that Teller never bothers to show us the two paintings side by side.

As a documentary, the film too often feels like the filmmakers’ old Showtime series “Penn and Teller Bullshit.” Scenes of Jenison wandering around Vermeer’s hometown in The Netherlands feel too staged. And in what can only be attributed to an attempt to lengthen the film, the montage of Jenison constructing Vermeer’s scene goes on far too long. Penn’s voiceover tells us not only is Tim not a painter, but also not a carpenter, glazier, furniture maker, tiler, tailor, or weaver – all impediments to his project. Then cut to Jenison – with apparently minimal assistance from technicians and builders – working diligently for months on end. But they never get into the nitty-gritty of how he goes about procuring every object and furnishing he needs. We see him using a lathe to carve out a chair leg (he even goes to absurd lengths to make the three foot leg fit into his thirty inch lathe), but what about the carpet and tiled floor? What about the costumes? It would have been more fascinating to see how he did all that, and who he employed, and how he paid for it, than to simply endure an endless montage.

Although more endless still was the extended section of the film devoted to the process of actually painting “The Music Lesson.” Segments of Tim painting with great effort and concentration are interspersed with on-camera testimonials in which he talks about problems he’s encountered or new discoveries, or simply explaining what’s to come or just went before. It’s a lugubrious and dull section of the film that dragged the entire experience down and left me feeling, despite the rather interesting discovery Jenison might have made, that I’d spent far too long on what is otherwise a very brief 85 minute movie.

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