In January 2013, clickbait repository Buzzfeed published an article titled ‘27 Stunning Works of Art Won’t Believe Aren’t Photographs‘. Indeed, the collection is impressive: a smattering of life-like images captured by creative people using their hands and not their cameras.
Tim’s Vermeer, a curious new documentary directed by veteran magician Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) follows a man who investigates a photorealist artist who existed well before that term was coined. Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer pipped the Buzzfeed lot to the post by, oh, a mere 300 years or more. His pantings, which works including Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Milkmaid, are known for their masterful use of light and colour.
The protagonist of Teller’s documentary is Texan inventor Tim Jenison, who decides to road test theories that Vermeer used a mirror-based contraption — a sort of proto-camera — to aid him when he drew (or copied, as it turns out) his subjects. To do so he constructs a replica of Vermeer’s studio, a series of paints using pigments available to Vermeer at the time (back then you couldn’t walk into an arts and craft shop and ask for the “sky blue”), and constructs a device which could have been built by the European master.
Jenison is endearing but not particularly great talent. Teller’s focus is his peculiar obsession, and the film keeps a steady ebb and flow by moving in accordance with its subject’s epiphanies. Teller’s gabby long-term professional partner Penn Jillette narrates it, in line with the “one talks too much, one doesn’t speak at all” dynamic at the heart of the illusion-making duo –no strangers to great effects created by trickery.
That was almost certainly their attraction to the material, which is packaged as a homely but interesting account of one man doggedly pursuing a theory and inviting others to share it. In doing so Teller puts forward an important message about how art can be approached tangentially. A “great artist” can be a loose and spurious term and one of the film’s take-home messages is that technology and creativity can — and often do — work side by side.
Tim’s Vermeer is also a fine example of how to structure an argumentative essay. Start with interesting hypothesis and back it up with a series of logical carefully sequenced arguments fleshed out with case studies, historical references, scientific opinion and dashes of humour. The film branches out into more details as it goes along, including discussing the “Seahorse Smile”, which refers to accidental curving as a result of working from reflections.
Penn may have oversold it when he described Jenison’s investigation as “a wonderful, exciting, tingly whodunit”. Teller’s film doesn’t quite capture a mission of that magnitude but it’s still interesting, well-made and captivating.