One issue with Tim’s Vermeer may be that Tim Jenisen is vastly more interesting than the film made about him. An inventor whose 3D technology has had a major impact on film and television, Tim is representative of a nearly singular American curiosity – arrogantly and self-assuredly venturing into the unknown.1 Jenisen, initially unaware of the international uproar over allegations that Johannes Vermeer, one of the all-time greatest painters and whose work include The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Music Room, had used technology in the creation of his masterpieces, embarks on a gruelling and inspiring journey to both uncover the technological advantages Vermeer had given himself and also to re-create a Vermeer painting himself.2 All of this despite the fact that Jenisen had never made an oil painting before and did not consider himself an artist in the traditional sense.
Teller, one half of magic duo Penn & Teller, directs this story about their friend with a pleasant intimacy. We always feel present in the scenes where Jenisen works on the painting, his emotional responses echoed in the audience. The foray to England to see artist David Hockney was a particular delight in this regard, Hockney an incredibly engaging and amusing prescence on camera and his bombast provides great contrast to the ever-humble Jenisen.3
A surprising aspect of the film is its relationship with mystery, setting up the question of whether Vermeer used machinery or technology and then positioning Jenisen as an art detective, of sorts. These reveals are always exciting and, despite the fact that the film’s title and general existence directs us as to what the end will be, the minutiae of finding a crooked line in a painting is much more affecting that one would assume. The construction and thereafter illustration of the various camera obscura techniques, all in the lead-up to the reveal of a truly simple solution, was an amusing and playful art history lesson, one that audiences will appreciate.
The pitch for the film sounds like a Radiolab episode and so it is perhaps suprising that it in fact lasts for 80 minutes. The actual painting sequence, in which we painstakingly watch as Jenisen spends hundreds of days painting, contains some of the film’s best moments from an emotional perspective yet feels lumped into the film with little sense of pace. As Jenisen paints dots for days and days it feels, at points, like we too are just watching paint dry. Whilst the film may have been of lesser worth had it just used a long montage, I can’t help but feel like the strenous process was made clear without subjecting the audience to a large amount of it.
With regards to filmmaking technique, the film is lacking. Unlike Gibney and Morris (both of whom have new films at the SFF this year), Teller hasn’t mastered the talking head interview, each cut to speed up conversation jarring and amateur. Another issue with the talking head sequences is that they exist at all. The imposition of Penn Gilette, who is a very close friend of Jenisen’s and who got the ball rolling on the entire documentary process, is a drag on the film. He provides little narrative value bar early on in the film, in which his memories of Jenisen allow us a deeper understanding of the man. The shots of him, sitting on a stage, feel obnoxious, continually acting to remind us who he is and what he does in a documentary that is not his own. This is intertwined with an eternal question of documentary cinema, that being the imposition of a documentarian in the feature. Last year’s The Act of Killing showed us a fairly superb means of dealing with this issue – mostly observing but interjections were incredibly powerful. Here, a gag about the Queen of England is the most overt, and in fact literal, step into the frame, and it is a painful two minutes.
However, the concept and certain scenes do enough to lift the film to a fairly solid level. We may have been spoilt in recent years with master documentarians – and this is most definitely not a film of that ilk – what it is, though, is an enjoyable character study and art exhibit. We may not have loved every second but we sure learnt a whole lot.