DIRECTED BY Teller
STARS Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette
Tim Jenison in Tim's Vermeer. (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
The word "bloated" is often used to describe movies that run a punishing three hours when a mere two would have sufficed. Hence, it may seem odd to use it to describe a film that clocks in at 80 minutes — even less than the usual theatrical minimum of 90. Yet that's the case with Tim's Vermeer, a feature-length documentary that would have worked so much better as a documentary short.
The Tim of the title is Tim Jenison, a man whose various inventions have made him filthy rich. With money to burn and time to kill, he decides to attempt to answer a question that's been tickling the minds of many art scholars: How did Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter best known for "Girl with a Pearl Earring," manage to make his portraits look eerily like photographs, long before photos were even invented? Jenison decides that Vermeer employed a camera obscura — Latin for "dark room," it's an optical device that allows for the projection of an image onto another surface — and sets about using similar techniques and circumstances to create an exact replica of the artist's "The Music Lesson."
It's an arduous task that takes years to complete, and this movie, made by Jenison's buddies Penn Jillette and Teller (the magic duo), doesn't always know where the focus should rest. The nitty-gritty of the techniques are fascinating, as are some of Jenison's realizations along the way, but too much of the time is spent simply watching Jenison gather materials or centering on circular conversations in which various folks (including Jillette, artist David Hockney and art scholar Philip Steadman) repeatedly wonder aloud as to whether Vermeer created art or merely traced it. All involved insist that whatever the method, Vermeer is still a genius, but the takeaway from the movie is that of a modern-day man trying to one-up a historical figure. Jenison professes a love for the artist's work, but in tackling his project in such a technical and methodical manner, one can't help but lament that he's missing the heart of the art — he sees but he doesn't feel.
In a bit of art-nerd humor, Jenison watches paint dry and cracks, "It's like watching paint dry." After sitting through the intermittently interesting but overlong Tim's Vermeer, I know how he feels.