From a first, skeptical glance at the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, it seems like it would be impossible to get more niche. The doc tracks graphic effects pioneer Tim Jenison’s attempt to replicate a masterwork by the legendary Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, not by speed-reading his way through training as a painter but through replicating technological tricks Vermeer might have used. It’s an esoteric quest that the trailer spices up by suggesting that Jenison is going to give the fuddy-duddy world of art history a richly-deserved kick in the johnson.
The premise seems destined for confident kneejerk reactions, with people either instantly drawn to the film or powerfully repelled in the way misaligned magnets launch each other apart. I’d hoped that the documentary would unfurl in some surprising way that would make it easy to declare, “Ah-ha!” — that those fleeing the trailer were mistaken and would miss something transcendent and surprising if they let their prejudice make their ticket window decisions.
I can’t, though, because as documentarians, Penn and Teller weren’t interested enough in the human details beyond Jenison’s own activity to produce anything other than what the trailer promises. If that peek at Tim’s Vermeer turned you off, let it: there’s no portrait of how Jenison’s years-long quest affected his wife and children or his friends, and there’s almost none of the hot skeptic-on-romantic action that the trailer seems to suggest.
But what is there is fascinating and delightfully stitched together. Penn, the showman, provides some narration and connective tissue: he and Jenison go way back, Jenison’s always been a freakishly clever autodidact and obsessive, art history’s only explanations for Vermeer’s genius for light rely on either technology or a mumbling shrug about otherworldly talent. But it’s his silent partner Teller who, as the film’s director, makes Tim’s Vermeer hum with simple, unobtrusive, and lively filmmaking. The result is sort of like a cheaper, longer version of an episode of their show Bullshit where they went around noisily debunking the world.
The star this time is Jenison, who looks like Santa on a summer vacation and talks like the most fascinating guest at the nerdiest dinner party you’ve ever dreamed of attending. Independently wealthy thanks to his foundational contributions to cinema graphic effects, Jenison is free to tinker with whatever ideas his high-powered mind happens onto. He comes at visual art from a synthetic perspective and technological skill set that makes him the perfect person to take on the Vermeer mythos. The Dutch master’s command of light was photorealistic, head and shoulders beyond the best work of his peers, and, skeptics have shown, essentially impossible with the lenses and lighting technology of his pre-electricity day.
But watching Jenison identify the key innovation Vermeer likely used to paint so uncannily is ultimately only the second-most interesting part of Tim’s Vermeer, even (I suspect) for someone far more invested in the history of western painting than I am. Jenison’s personality — his obsession with details, his warmth, his creativity, and his tendency to jerry-rig things himself rather than get somebody to help him — end up stealing the show. He doesn’t just discover how Vermeer probably did his masterpieces; he goes out and builds an exact replica of Vermeer’s studio in a warehouse space, and exact replicas of every object visible in the painting he’s attempting to recreate. He even plays “Smoke On The Water” on the viol da gamba that he makes himself to complete the scene.
There may, ultimately, be something missing. In different hands, Jenison’s story might have turned into the kind of surprise-twist documentary mining of previously-unimagined narrative detail that Werner Herzog or Errol Morris specialize in, or the kind of newsy attention-must-be-paid stuff that drives Kirby Dick. Those different, non-existent films might have somehow been more valuable, whatever that means, but it’s hard to imagine them being as much fun. In the end, Penn and Teller don’t really kick anybody in the pants, and Jenison’s foibles don’t add up to all that much more than engaging character detail. With a precision that would probably please the three men most involved in making it, Tim’s Vermeer is exactly what meets the eye.