In his 2012 Smithsonian essay "Teller Reveals His Secrets," the mostly silent member of the Penn & Teller team asserts, "You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money, and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest."
This insight drives the wry, persistent protagonist of Teller's new documentary Tim's Vermeer. Like Bad Words, Tim's Vermeer is about a middle-aged man on a seemingly senseless quest. But that's where the similarities end. This provocative, whip-smart film unscrews your head, fills it to the brim with combustible ideas about art, science, technology, history, and talent. Then it lights a match.
That match assumes the form of two incendiary, illuminating questions: "What is art?" and "Am I an artist if I make some?" Yet the most charming aspect of Tim's Vermeer is the polite, almost deferential way those questions are posed. Throughout the film, Penn Jillette (onscreen) and Teller (behind the camera) are atypically reverent and respectful. They aren't interested in debunking any artwork or defaming any artists; they're content to let the elbow-patch sports-jacket crowd untangle any loose ends they uncover. They are more interested in exploring the notion of "fathomable geniuses": hard-working creators who bust their asses while waiting for inspiration from either the muses or the aether to strike.
With Tim Jenison, Penn and Teller find an ideal surrogate. Jenison is a wealthy inventor and tireless autodidact who has been moved and fascinated by the work of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer for many years. Like most people, Jenison appreciates the subtle, almost photographic play of light and shadow in paintings like "The Milkmaid" and "Girl With a Red Hat." Unlike most people, Jenison has the patience, ingenuity, and spare cash to test his theory that Vermeer achieved his uncanny effects through a combination of mirrors, reflections, and optical devices. Penn and Teller are with him the whole way as he scouts Dutch locations, learns how to grind and manufacture his own paint, and eventually builds a life-size reproduction of the room where Vermeer created "The Music Lesson."
Tim's Vermeer is barely 80 minutes long, but it's effective at conveying the tremendous amounts of time, effort, and concentration required for Jenison's mad, painstaking project. When he finally settles down to paint his own version of "The Music Lesson," wave after wave of camera dissolves combine with his arid, quietly hilarious running commentary ("Another day, more dots") to mark his slow, delicate progress. There are also some witty time-lapse passages that illustrate the fickle fidgetings of human models. (Throwaway query: What is time, anyway?) For every chuckle, there are unexpected moments of philosophical resonance and significance, like the early scene when Jenison eerily proclaims, "I'm a piece of human photographic film at this point."
As his project drags on, Jenison starts to understand and appreciate Edison's definition of genius as 99 percent perspiration. And then he comes to the end. He finishes his work, shows it to others. They approve. Cue Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece." Roll credits.
The overall effect is magical.
Opens Friday, March 28th
Studio on the Square