Tim Jenison, a Texas-based inventor, attempts to solve one of the greatest mysteries in the art world: How did Dutch master Johannes Vermeer manage to paint so photo-realistically 150 years before the invention of photography? Spanning a decade, Jenison’s adventure takes him to Holland, on a pilgrimage to the North coast of Yorkshire to meet artist David Hockney, and eventually even to Buckingham Palace. The epic research project Jenison embarks on is as extraordinary as what he discovers.
'Tim's Vermeer' is an 80-minute movie that examines the technique used by 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Hey! Wait a minute…where are you going? No, trust me – this isn't as dull as it sounds. In fact, 'Tim's Vermeer' is one of the better documentaries I've seen in a while.
The movie introduces us to Tim Jenison, whose name is probably not familiar to most of you, but his background may be. Tim is an inventor who, among other achievements, was the designer of a video editing device (and its software) in the early 1990s known as the "Video Toaster". He is neither a painter nor an artist (other than the computer graphics kind), which is important to note given what he is able to accomplish in this film.
Tim has a theory (not first suggested by him, but one he supports) that Vermeer – whose works had a very photorealistic look to them – used some arrangement of mirrors to be able to paint his works. It becomes Tim's obsession to not only figure out how Vermeer did it, but to prove his theory by attempting to paint one of Vermeer's most notable works, 'The Music Lesson'.
Through a series of trial and error, Tim figures out that not only did Vermeer most likely make use of a 'camera obscura' set up (a room with a small hole in one wall that will convey the outside image inverted on the opposite wall), but some additional mirrors for aid as well. Once Tim has a theory in place, he tests it by attempting to paint a photograph he has, and the results are shocking. Not only does Tim's theory work, but the image that this 'non-painter' recreates is impressive.
Now that he's pretty sure he has an idea how Vermeer did what he did, Tim starts bouncing his theory off of others – first with good friend (and someone who actually knows how to paint) actor Martin Mull, then with a trip to the UK to meet David Hockney, an English painter who wrote a book theorizing that Vermeer used opticals to create his works. The last part of the movie focuses on Tim's effort to complete his own Vermeer and see how close it compares to the original.
One of the big draws of this movie is the association of magicians Penn and Teller. Penn Jillette has been a close personal friend of Jenison's for years, and when he heard of Tim's obsession over Vermeer, he knew it would make for a great movie. Penn narrates the movie, while Teller goes behind the lens as the movie's director – so, the film plays out very much like an extended episode of Penn and Teller's 'Bullshit!' series, minus the f-bombs and nudity.
'Tim's Vermeer' is really the best kind of documentary – one that tackles a not-so-well known topic (at least to those outside the art world), presents it in layman's terms, and teaches us something along the way. The fact that there's a pretty good chance that Tim's theory about Vermeer is correct only makes the movie that much more enjoyable. This is one of the few times where watching paint dry is far from boring.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Tim's Vermeer' comes to home video in Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The eco-Lite Vortex keepcase houses the dual-layer DVD on the inside left and the dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray on the inside right. Both the Blu-ray and the DVD are front-loaded with a Sony promo ad, plus trailers for 'For No Good Reason', The Lunchbox, Only Lovers Left Alive, Jodorowsky's Dune, and The Invisible Woman. The main menu for both discs consists of a still image of various framed photos from the movie, not too dissimilar from the box cover (just minus Tim Jenison's head). Menu selections run across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray of 'Tim's Vermeer' has been encoded for Region A only.
According to information provided in the audio commentary of this release, the primary digital camera used for shooting this movie was from the Red line of products. However, some scenes in the movie – like those involving David Hockney – were shot using consumer-grade digital cameras, due to the fact that Hockney originally told the crew he didn't want to be on camera (he seems to have changed his mind once he established the validity of Jenison's theory). Other scenes in the movie are old camcorder recordings from Jenison's home collection.
Therefore, as you can probably guess, the video quality is a mixed bag, and varies from shot to shot. However, even the material shot on the Red camera is pretty flat-looking and doesn't provide a lot of 'pop'. There are slight issues depending on the scene, and watchful eyes will notice banding, aliasing, and artifacting creeping into a number of shots. Despite the flatness of most scenes, color and detail are still pretty good, although they vary according to what segment of the movie one is watching.
Because the movie is primarily a 'talking heads' presentation (to say nothing of the big chunks of film where we're just watching Tim paint), the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is rather unspectacular. All of the spoken dialogue is front and center and the only time the surrounds kick-in is during use of the film's rather forgettable (aside from an end-credits tune by Bob Dylan) score (by Conrad Pope).
While directionality is all but non-existent here, both the dynamic range and balance are solid. There are no major issues with drop-outs or other glitches, although a careful ear will notice the difference in the crispness/clearness of the dialogue during the David Hockney sequences, as those relied on audio picked up by a consumer digital camera rather than a professional Red camera. Thankfully, the audio was amped up and cleaned up a bit in post-production (as we learn on the audio commentary) so the difference isn't too evident.
In addition to the lossless DTS-HD 5.1 track, a 5.1. Audio Description Track is provided, as well as subtitles in English, English SDH, and French.
Who would have thought a movie about painting could be so wonderfully engaging? A lot of the credit for that is due to the backing of Penn and Teller, but just as much credit goes to the unraveling of the mystery the movie presents. Unlike so many documentaries, which have something to say but often ignore contradictory evidence to make a point, 'Tim's Vermeer' approaches its topic scientifically, and winds up possibly providing an answer to one of the biggest conundrums in art history. Recommended.