NYFF51 Spotlight: The Magic of “Tim’s Vermeer”

All great art deserves to be preserved and, in some rare instances, recreated. Tim’s Vermeer, a new documentary from the celebrated magician/comedy duo Penn and Teller, makes a case for one such instance.  Our subject is Tim Jenison, a prolific and very successful inventor (his company NewTek is based in San Antonio) who, due to a fascination with the seventeenth century painter Johannes Vermeer, decided to create an exact replica of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson by hand.

Curiosity is often the starting point for a great idea. Tim’s interest and often-painstaking obsession with the artwork stemmed from beliefs that Vermeer created many of his paintings with the aid of mirrors and lenses—an in-depth, visually creative description of the concept “camera obscura” soon follows. As Vermeer’s work tended to look incredibly cinematic (“he painted the way a camera sees,” quips Penn), Tim, a non-painter, wanted to see if he could recreate The Music Lesson using the same tools the artist had at his disposal (natural light, handmade paint, etc.). Since Tim wouldn’t be allowed to paint in the actual room Vermeer worked in—it's off-limits in Holland—Tim rebuilt Vermeer’s room in his San Antonio warehouse! Needless to say, no detail went overlooked.

As Penn and Teller have mentioned, this film couldn't have been realized in years past. With multiple cameras, Tim's daily painting minutia was captured stroke-by-stroke; the amount of footage shot was startling. As Penn stated after a recent NYFF press screening, "this movie could not have been made ten years ago. It would have been too expensive. So the talking about Vermeer using technology, the actual movie itself is using technology. And I can’t think—and I’m sure there are examples but I haven’t been able to think of one off the top of my head – that is an event like this, that is this well documented, while it’s happening."

Thoughtful and theoretical, this highly watchable documentary asks some weighty questions relating to the differences between art and technology. Are the two “allowed” to merge in their quest for the ultimate masterpiece? Would this blending be considered cheating? Their conclusion runs optimistic: With the world at your disposal, everything is up for grabs. This often light-hearted film inspires those to make good on their hypotheses.


Teller, Tim Jenison, and Penn at a Q&A following a screening of the film. Photo by Godlis

Showering the film with praise, Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter wrote "There is scarcely an art form that remains immune to technological advances or that does not involve electronics, machines or new materials in its production or presentation. The remarkable result Jenison achieves—Hockney and Steadman are both very keen when they see it—doesn't undercut Vermeer's original accomplishment at all but perhaps removes it slightly from the realm of the ineffable. “How did he do it?” suddenly has a plausible answer that makes Vermeer “a fathomable genius” and, by extension, other artists less godlike and more approachable."

Tim's Vermeer
Director: Teller

Section: Applied Science
Screens: October 9 at 9:00pm

NYFF Official Description:

Tim Jenison, one of the giants of video and post-production software for home computers, is always in search of new projects and simple solutions to apparently complex problems. After he read Philip Steadman and David Hockney’s hypotheses about Vermeer and his alleged use of optics, Jenison built his own camera obscura and decided that there was one missing component. He then put his theory to the test, which drove him, step by step, to his grandest and most obsessive project ever. Jenison built a "set" in a San Antonio studio that recreated Vermeer’s "The Music Lesson" one painstakingly crafted object at a time, from the ceiling beams to the jug on the carpeted table. In the process, he taught himself to paint. Narrated by the ever-ebullient Penn and directed by the silent Teller, both longtime friends of Jenison’s, Tim’s Vermeer is a bouncy, entertaining, real-life detective story.

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