Imagine being a brilliant inventor. Hell, imagine being a borderline genius. You run a company, you own a jet, you're best buddies with Penn and/or Teller. And you're also obsessed with art. Not necessarily all art; mostly the works of Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer was a Dutch painter in the 1600s who produced some of the most vivid scenes ever captured on canvas. And you can't figure out how he did it.
Thus is the conceit of Tim's Vermeer: Tim Jenison, the founder of video imaging innovator NewTek, lies awake at night thinking about Vermeer. Not just because his paintings are gorgeous; because they seem to surpass what human beings are capable of.
Vermeer's art has inspired numerous books and endless debate amongst art historians, many of whom are convinced that he could not have worked with imagination (or even basic visual inspiration) alone. He captures light and detail with such accuracy that some suspect there was (gasp!) technology involved in his process.
This riles up some purists and draws shoulder shrugs from others. But as an inventor, it tickles Tim's fancy. With cameras rolling for over 1,800 days, he attempts to determine how Vermeer produced such masterpieces, and then recreate one on his own. And here's the kicker: he's not a painter.
As a lengthy magazine feature, this is a brilliant concept. As a feature-length documentary, however, there's not so much there. Luckily, producer Penn Gillette and director Teller seem very cognizant of this fact: Tim's Vermeer clocks in at a Men in Black II-esque 80 minutes. Our titular character's attempts to lock down Vermeer's methods and reproduce them receive much of the attention, while the actual painting itself is depicted in a smartly constructed montage detailing his frustrations at the tail end of a nearly endless project. The magical duo show a canny appreciation for which parts of Tim's journey deserve ample focus, which helps the already trim runtime fly by and a basic tale feel worthy of the big screen.
Penn, Teller and Tim spend the documentary working towards two points. The first is that society has created an unnecessary distinction between artist and technician; for whatever reason, we prefer to label people as one or the other. This is especially true when dealing with the work of painters from the past: If it's revealed that any sort of technical setup was required, even something as simple as a mirror and a lens, the art is no longer "pure." As magicians who masterfully combine the two on a nightly basis, Penn and Teller believe this to be rubbish. And they aren't alone in that regard.
The second is that if Vermeer did indeed employ Tim's hypothesized methods to paint, he should be praised as a multi-talented intellectual rather than reconsidered as a sort of sham. Some in the art world apparently prefer the explanation that Vermeer was a superhuman with the visual acumen and uncanny skillset of an otherworldly being. Any explanation otherwise is unsatisfactory, and lessens the impact of his work.
But Vermeer was not from another galaxy; Tim doesn't actually end up producing a Vermeer, but for someone who'd barely held a paintbrush before filming began, he comes remarkably close. And personally, I would much prefer to know that a master painter was not only wildly artistic but also considerably more clever than his peers. While they were trying to overcome their limitations in reproducing reality, he bypassed those limitations entirely. It's a testament to the man and his work, and to the documentarians who recognized that Tim's obsession shed light on a story that deserved to be told.