Turn a couple of skeptics loose with a camera and a harebrained theory and the result might be something like Tim’s Vermeer, an engaging new documentary from magicians Penn and Teller. The duo uses no sleight-of-hand, however, in their quest to uncover how the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer created his striking masterpieces, filled with luminous details created by his famous “painting with light.”
The theory examined by director Teller (he’s the silent one) and his producing, narrating and writing partner Penn Jillette gained momentum with British artist David Hockney and artist and scholar Philip Steadman. Their theory then takes root with San Antonio-based inventor Tim Jenison, and together they explain their belief that Vermeer took advantage of then-current technological devices, such as the camera obscura, which might have then given way to the use of various optics.
Fortunately for this film, Jenison has enough personal wealth to allow him the expense and time to travel to Vermeer’s Holland for research and to England to talk to Hockney and Steadman, as well as dropping in on the queen (not seen) for a private viewing of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson.
Back in Texas, Jenison takes months to recreate Vermeer’s room, mix the paints like Vermeer did, and even manufacture his own optic lens. Once ready, he spends more agonizing months to paint The Music Lesson, using the techniques they all believe Vermeer used. The Dutch painter was revered for his striking, realistic paintings that introduced light in ways that had never been done before.
The process is a tedious one, made cinematically palatable by Teller’s short-hand storytelling and by an acknowledged need to keep his film relatively brief. Eventually, it becomes a question of who had greater patience, Jenison or Vermeer?
The final product may, or may not, persuade skeptics, but Penn and Teller have provided further discussion by asserting that an artist is not “cheating” when using what is simply at his disposal.
Rated PG-13, 80 minutes.
Opens Friday at the Angelika Plano and the Magnolia in Dallas.