Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Tim's Vermeer

The glow and play of light suffuses the work of Johannes Vermeer like that of no other painter in the pantheon.

In the fascinating, at times jaw-dropping new documentary "Tim's Vermeer," director Teller (as in Penn and) introduces us to Tim Jenison, a genial nerd from San Antone whose prolific inventions include the Video Toaster, LightWave, and TriCaster. Tim read a book by Philip Steadman suggesting that Vermeer may have used a primitive form of photography to achieve the realism that most clearly manifests itself in this radiance. The idea so intrigued Jenison that he set about, first, to re-"invent" the technology Vermeer may have employed and, second, to test his thesis by using his reinvention to recreate, in literally painstaking detail, one of Vermeer's great beauties, "The Music Lesson."

When Jenison notes in passing that he has never before held a paintbrush, your first inclination is to laugh at the impudence of his quixotic quest. But as the project unfolds, the possibility enters your mind that Vermeer may in fact have been more an inventor and mechanic than a painter - or perhaps that the conceptualization of a painter as one who, using only imagination, takes brush to canvas may itself need broadening. 

Jenison spends years - and some fraction of his self-made fortune - replicating, in infinitesimal detail, the room in which "The Music Lesson" is set. He constructs a studio laid down at just the proper angle, and even builds a wall to cast the exact same shadows of the Vermeer work. He then places his oversize contraption - a variation on a camera obscura - and begins the excruciating, months-long work of "painting," at one point passing the brush to a visiting Steadman. It could be anyone - the image of the room reflected in the camera will show a discontinuity with the new painting until the color matches exactly at each point. 

Teller, Jenison, Steadman and David Hockney - who's also sold on the premise, though it doesn't make him think any less of Vermeer - make delightful company in a documentary with the decency to tell its story and exit the stage in about 80 minutes. There are some moments of self-effacing humor, and lovely little touches like the use of Jenison's adult daughter, home from college, as his model for the piano pupil of the painting. After days in a custom-fitted head brace, he quips, "No student has ever been more eager to return to school."

Arriving very late in the year, "Tim's Vermeer" stakes claim to a spot among the top ten documentaries of 2013.

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