I’ve found my first real pleasant surprise at the New York Film Festival folks. Yes, Tim’s Vermeer completely won me over, far more than I was expecting it to. This documentary from Penn and Teller is a tremendous crowd pleaser and I’d even go so far as to say it’s not just one of the top NYFF titles, but one of my favorite films of the year so far as well. Directed by Teller and narrated by Penn Jillette, this doc functions not just as a primer on Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, a character study of inventor Tim Jenison, a commentary on the relationship that art has with technology, and a little bit of a mystery as well. It all gels pretty much perfectly, leading to one of the most satisfying 80 minutes of cinema I’ve had at a festival so far in 2013. Even if you’re like me and barely knew who Vermeer was before this flick, there’s still a ton of things to enjoy here. This is educational, entertaining, funny, and compulsively watchable. I’d love to see the movie get a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Academy Awards. Simply put, Tim’s Vermeer deserves that honor. Hell, I wouldn’t mind it winning the Oscar too.
The doc follows an old friend of Penn’s, the San Antonio based inventor Tim Jenison. He’s an expert on the technology he’s invented (tech like Video Toaster, LightWave, and TriCaster are all his babies), but he’s also a bit of a dutch art history buff, specifically Johannes Vermeer. Sheer curiosity and his inquisitive nature leads him to try and solve the mystery of how, in the 16th century, Vermeer managed to paint so realistically…essentially photo-realistically, especially considering he did all this almost 200 years before photography was even invented. When Penn found out what his friend was up to, he and Teller set out to document it and see just what would end up happening. What follows is a research project that spans over a decade. Tim slowly develops a theory before putting it into play. Yes, he even goes so far as to try and recreate a legendary Vermeer painting. The first half of the doc focuses mostly on the mystery and the education of it all (while entertaining a lot), while the second half watches Tim actually attempt the supposedly impossible. The results are rather incredible, though regardless of that, Tim is just a fun guy to hang out with. His day spent with Martin Mull is a particular highlight.
Teller doesn’t over do it at all as a director. He’s content to let Penn narrate but Tim actually be the star. Tim pretty much takes us by the hand and shows us everything he’s up to. The ace up Penn and Teller’s sleeve is Tim’s personality. He struck me as a genius inventor/mad scientist crossed with Philip Seymour Hoffman and a bit of Nick Offerman too. If that sounds like a guy you’d like to spend time with, you’re in luck. Of course, there are bigger things here besides hanging out with Tim, as the film gets into Vermeer’s mystique as well as the nature of art itself, but it never bangs you over the head with it. I certainly appreciated that.
By the by, if anyone is a fan of Penn and Teller themselves, either their magic show or their television series, this works as a solid companion piece. Teller is only rarely seen, but Penn narrates just like he’s done in the past. Obviously this is longer than you normally spend with them on screen, but they never wear out their welcome. I personally dig them, so it was kind of a thrill at the festival to hang around for the press conference after the screening and hear Teller actually speak!
The less said about Tim’s Vermeer, the better. It’s quite frankly better left for an audience member to discover on their own. I was captivated the entire time, whether I was learning more about Vermeer himself, getting to know Tim, or when the experiment actually goes down. It’s all done with humor and heart in equal measure. The end result is not just one of the best documentaries of 2013 so far, but one of the best films in general. It’s certainly an NYFF highlight for me, but it should be a must see for you all as well…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!