I’m hardly an art connoisseur (at least in terms of paintings…if we’re talking film, that’s obviously a different story), but man did this movie ever capture my attention. Yes, Tim’s Vermeer completely won me over back when I initially saw it back at the New York Film Festival, 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 that it was robbed of a Best Documentary Feature nomination. Directed by Teller and narrated by Penn Jillette (yes, that Penn and Teller, as I reference above), 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 rather perfectly, leading to one of the most satisfying 80 minutes of cinema I had at a festival in 2013 and one of my favorite films of 2014 so far. Even if you’re like me and barely knew who Vermeer was beyond the basics before this flick, there’s still a ton of things to enjoy here. This is educational, entertaining, funny, and compulsively watchable. I’d have loved to seen the movie get a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Academy Awards, but its snub takes nothing away from its quality. Simply put, Tim’s Vermeer deserved that honor. Once you see it, you’ll understand why I’m so fond of it.
The doc follows an old and close friend of Penn’s, the San Antonio based inventor Tim Jenison. He’s an inventor, clearly an expert on the technology that he’s invented (tech like Video Toaster, LightWave, and TriCaster are all his babies in case you were wondering), but he’s also a bit of a dutch art history buff as well, 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 close to invented. When Penn found out what his friend was up to, he saw a movie in his head and along with 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 the legendary Vermeer painting The Music Lesson. 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, as are some of his facial expressions once he’s deep into attempting to paint the Vermeer.
Teller doesn’t over do it at all as a director here. He’s content to let Penn narrate but Tim actually be the star, and it’s a brilliant call. 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 to get 90 minutes worth of them. This isn’t as overtly incendiary in terms of the topic they’re handling, but there’s more here than meets the eye.
The less said about Tim’s Vermeer, the better, I think. 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 films of 2014 so far, but the best documentary that I’ve seen in some time. It was certainly an NYFF highlight for me, and now it should be an early year must see for you all. Trust me here…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!