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With: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, Teller
Written by: Penn Jillette, Teller
Directed by: Teller
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language
Running Time: 80
Date: 01/31/2014

Tim's Vermeer (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Painting Lesson

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Penn and Teller usually don't make serious documentaries, and you might expect anything they do to fall into the Exit Through the Gift Shop category: "this may not be quite real." But everything in Tim's Vermeer leads us to believe that it's genuine. Nothing is proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, of course, but everything we see on screen looks absolutely convincing.

What happens is that Penn and Teller have this old friend, Tim Jenison, who makes a living as an inventor. He made a fortune from an early computer/video technology called the "Video Toaster" that some of you older folks may remember. In his spare time, Tim is an art enthusiast and is especially fond of the works of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Movie fans may remember that Vermeer was played by Colin Firth in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

After reading a book by English artist David Hockney (see also David Hockney: Secret Knowledge), Tim began to wonder why Vermeer's paintings were so photorealistic when other works from the same period were much simpler and more primitive. Hockney opined that Vermeer had worked with lenses, or specifically with a "camera obscura," but Tim began digging deeper. He discovered a way in which a mirror, mounted above the canvas, can be used to reflect the image and then traced onto the canvas, looking back and forth over the edge of the mirror. (It's probably better shown in the documentary than I can describe it here.)

Tim decides that he's going to use this technique to try to reproduce Vermeer's The Music Lesson. He practices on a few simple items, a black-and-white photo and a white pitcher. He visits Hockney in person. While in London, he spends a half an hour viewing the original Music Lesson (an event that was not allowed to be filmed, but we see Tim describing it, moved nearly to tears). He then builds a precise duplicate of the room in his own San Antonio studio, and gets down to work.

The final half-hour or so depicts the mind-numbing process of copying every conceivable shade of light onto his canvas. At one point, Tim's daughter comes home from school and agrees to pose as the girl in the picture. At another point, he realizes that when he comes to the image of the rug, he can see each individual stitch, and proceeds to recreate them all. Occasionally, the credited director Teller captures some of Tim's moments of agony, heartbreak, boredom, confusion, frustration, and elation.

Occasionally Penn appears for commentary and interviews, while Teller keeps up his ages-old stage persona of never speaking. The comic Martin Mull, also an art nut, also appears. They make Tim's Vermeer an enjoyable affair. The movie does discuss the idea of whether or not Vermeer was "cheating" by using technology that was available to him in his creations, but this discussion does not go into depth. Overall, I think the ultimate achievement of this movie was that it made me appreciate Vermeer's works more, not less, than I had before. And that makes it worthwhile.

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