Tim’s Vermeer
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Every day, art enthusiasts make their way through museums like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to admire the works of the Dutch masters—to study their use of light and color in creating remarkably lifelike paintings. Some are happy simply to study and appreciate the paintings. Others, like Tim Jenison, the subject of the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, are determined to understand—and even recreate—the techniques used to create these classic works of art.

Tim’s Vermeer follows Jenison on his quest to copy one of the Dutch masters. Since 2002, the inventor has been fascinated by (and some might say obsessed with) the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Very little is known of the artist’s background—of his apprenticeships or other training—and, for that reason, Tim and other art historians believe that Vermeer may have used some kind of mechanical techniques to create his masterpieces. So, using light and mirrors and other materials available during Vermeer’s time, Tim sets out to create his own replica of one of Vermeer’s paintings.

Tim’s Vermeer is an oddly fascinating film about art, invention, and obsession. Tim isn’t an artist—or even an art historian. He just likes figuring out how things work—and when he sets out to copy Vermeer’s possible techniques, he doesn’t mess around. What follows, then, is an in-depth exploration of various artistic techniques during a couple of overseas fact-finding missions, eventually culminating in a painstakingly-planned, meticulously-detailed 130-day experiment. It’s an impressive undertaking to say the least, and the film follows Tim through every remarkable (though sometimes somewhat monotonous) step of the way.

What makes the film even stranger, however, is its filmmakers: Vegas magicians Penn and Teller (the latter of whom is the film’s director). Tim is a long-time friend of Penn Jillette, who acts as both producer and a kind of on-camera expert on Tim. Wherever Tim goes, Penn is there with him—and as Tim continues his work, Penn is there, too, looking over his shoulder. He adds some entertainment value—as well as some star power—to the film, but his presence often feels out of place.

The filmmaking, meanwhile, is pretty basic. It’s clear that this is Teller’s first film; it’s not particularly polished or professional—and it comes complete with the kind of narration that will remind you of a PBS special.

In the end, though, it’s not the simple filmmaking style nor Penn’s distracting appearances that will stick with you; it’s Tim and his experiment. Whether you buy into his hypothesis or not, you’ll have to agree that his is an intriguing adventure through art and science. And whichever camp you belong to—whether you prefer art or science—you’re sure to be impressed by Tim’s determination and dedication and mesmerized by the results.

Listen to the audio review on Reel Discovery:

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