Tim's Vermeer

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A very good documentary about an unlikely subject: a high-tech inventor and entrepreneur, Tim Jenison, decides to duplicate a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. And (spoiler!) does.

But the details are what makes this interesting. Jenison's background and fortune result from his innovative linking of computers and video, with his inventions in use across the world. But somehow his interest is piqued by an art-history oddity: how did Vermeer accomplish his near-photographic depictions of his subjects, unprecedented in history, and even unusual for its time?

Jenison became acquainted with the theory, explicated by David Hockney and Philip Steadman, that Vermeer was somehow using optical gimmicks to match details and color while he was painting. There's little or nothing in the historical record to back that up, but Jenison starts reverse-engineering a possible mechanism, using only materials and methods that would have been available to Vermeer back in the 17th century Netherlands. After some initial encouraging success, he decides to attempt reproducing The Music Lesson. He duplicates Vermeer's studio in a San Antonio warehouse; he buys props and pigments, and otherwise gets to work.

In the wrong hands, this could have been as interesting as watching paint dry. (Heh.) (And they make that joke in the movie too.)

The nature of Vermeer's genius (artistic or "merely" technical) is apparently still mired in controversy, but the film points out a lot of evidence in the painting pointing to optical wizardry: chromatic aberration, distortion that might have been introduced by a concave mirror in the setup, differences in illumination too subtle for the human eye to pick up itself. I was convinced, but I only heard Tim's side of the story.

The film was produced by the comedy/magic duo of Penn and Teller, with Penn Jillette (a longtime friend of Tim Jenison) providing a lot of narration and Teller directing. Hence, much of the reason Jenison's not just another obsessed geek working on an obscure project is due to piggybacking on Penn and Teller's fame. Which is fine, but makes me wonder: what about all those other guys. Do they have equally interesting stories to tell?