Movie Review - Tim's Vermeer

Penn Jillette (left) and Tim Jenison
Penn Jillette tells the story of Tim Jenison, an Emmy Award-winning inventor who helped to revolutionize the television industry and is now very wealthy.

Starting in 2008 and ending in 2013, Jenison dedicated himself to figuring out how Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer painted his famous works. Jenison also dedicated himself to replicating Vermeer's "The Music Lesson." The process that Jenison discovers and develops is a meticulous process that once he gets started takes him over 4 months of sitting and carefully painting for hours on end.

At one point, Jenison says his process is as boring as watching paint dry, which essentially it is. Much respect goes to Jenison for his dedication, but watching him do this, one can become just as bored or frustrated as he does. Along the way, what cuts the boredom and frustration are Jenison's discoveries that support his theory about how Vermeer painted his paintings.

Firstly, Jenison's theory isn't totally his own. His theory piggybacks mainly off David Hockney who wrote a book about how artists like Vermeer used technology to make their art. Specifically, Hockney suggests that men like Vermeer used optics or optical devices. Jenison designs and builds one such optical device, a type of camera obscura with a specialty mirror. He eventually develops a camera lucida.

A good chunk of this documentary by Penn & Teller is Jenison explaining or rather Penn explaining what the camera obscura is and how it exactly works. The problem is even Jenison admits by the end that there's no way to prove that Vermeer actually used this process or such an optical device.

Again, Jenison provides evidence and he makes an argument as to how Vermeer probably did use optics, but there is an obvious question that comes to mind that no one in this movie addresses or raises, which is bothersome.

There is a painting by Vermeer called "The Procuress." It's notable because it's probably one of the few paintings, if not just the one, to be a self-portrait. The work has several characters. Vermeer himself is one of the characters, reportedly. If Vermeer used the process that Jenison demonstrates, it would have been impossible for him to do a self-portrait. The obvious question that no one addresses is how could Vermeer have painted himself using Jenison's process?

This movie at some point detaches from Vermeer and ceases to care about him and becomes more about Jenison's process. This is fine, but, again, it gets to be boring. If this movie wanted to be more about Jenison and this obsession, which he admits to doing for the movie and less and less for personal reasons, than the movie could have used more background on the man.

For example, the movie runs through Jenison's inventions and major accomplishments, but we only get a passing glance at his family life. The filmmakers never truly interview Jenison's family or get a sense how they feel about him or what he's doing.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 20 mins.


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