You could call inventor and digital-tech engineer Tim Jenison obsessive. You could call him self-indulgent, too. But his fixation on the beautiful, hyper-realistic paintings of 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer — and his almost preposterous quest to figure out the master’s technique and attempt to personally paint an exact copy of a Vermeer — is at the heart of Tim’s Vermeer. This unique and fascinating documentary is produced by famed magicians/debunkers Penn Jillette & Teller, narrated by Jillette and directed by Teller. It’s also imbued with Penn & Teller’s trademark skepticism, mordant wit, and willingness to delve behind the scenes of what appears magical or unfathomable but can, in fact, be explained in very real and understandable ways.
Vermeer’s work had previously inspired speculation that he used a primitive type of mirror-projection system to achieve such glistening, quasi-photographic paintings as Girl with a Pearl Earring. His command of light, his accurate-to-the-millimeter rendering of anatomical proportion, and his representation of the tiniest detail suggested something beyond sheer skill with a paintbrush and pallet. Still, the details (and possible mechanics) of his approach remained a mystery.
Based in Texas, Jenison appears to have earned a comfortable income from the well-regarded Video Toaster and TriCaster systems he developed for the NewTek company, and thus he had the capacity to pursue the years of research and painstaking craft that are at the heart of Tim’s Vermeer. As Teller, Jillette, and the camera accompany him, Jenison travels to Europe to visit Vermeer’s base of operations, Delft, Holland; he drops in on the Yorkshire, England, home of artist David Hockney, another Vermeer fan whose ideas of his own about the master’s process have long been a matter of public record; and he swings by Buckingham Palace with the intention of eyeballing a Vermeer owned by Queen Elizabeth. Jenison also compares notes with British architect Philip Steadman, whose book Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces postulates that the use of the antique, light-bending device known as a camera obscura was pivotal to Vermeer’s expertise.
As Jenison tries to build a means to reproduce Vermeer’s paintings (an apparatus that would have been possible to make in the 17th century), the film shifts its focus. Much of the final third of Tim’s Vermeer is dedicated to Jenison’s rigorous attempt to perfectly duplicate Vermeer’s 1662 painting, The Music Lesson. Jenison almost single-handedly constructs every physical component depicted in the painting, fashioning something akin to a theatrical set. He gathers together models to sit in for the people in the original, and, using his own optical system and standard brushes and paint, meticulously goes about recreating the Vermeer. To see Jenison delicately and thoroughly render the miniscule designs on a vintage keyboard is to see a man driven by what he perceives as a duty.
A viewer may possibly find Tim’s Vermeer tedious in its deliberate pursuit of a truth — a palpable answer to a centuries-old question. The depiction of Jenison’s dogged attempt to understand Vermeer’s gift and to render what amounts to a perfect counterfeit version of a masterwork could strike the casual observer as the decadent ministrations of a well-to-do dilettante.
But for an art lover with a hunger to understand what was behind the greatness of a venerated artist, Jenison’s diligence is admirable, and the laborious details of his quest are truly compelling. As an investigation into a nexus of art and science and as a search for answers to the conundrum posed by the uncommon beauty and precision of Vermeer’s magnificent output, Teller’s documentary is a treat and a hoot. Jenison’s mission takes on a crazy glory. And rather than diminish Vermeer as a creative force, it adds another dimension to his genius.
Tim’s Vermeer: opens Feb. 14 at the newly renovated Landmark Theaters Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Center, 415-352-0835, www.landmarktheaters.com