Customer Reviews: Tim's Vermeer
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"Tim's Vermeer" (2013 release; 80 min.) brings the story of Tim Jenison, an inventor who has amassed a small fortune over his life time and now has become fascinated (obsessed may be the better word) with the 17th century Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer. Tim examines in particular Vermeer's painting "The Music Lesson", which has an astonishing amount of details in it. Tim eventually comes to the conclusion that Vermeer used a variety of optical devices (mirrors, camera obscura, lenses), and to test his theory, he decides to recreate "The Music Lesson" from scratch, even though he is not a skilled painter by any means. To tell you more would ruin your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.

Couple of comments: first, this documentary is made (and narrated) by Penn, he of Penn & Teller. Turns out that Penn and Tim have known each other for many years, and it's easy to see why this particular topic would have peaked Penn's interest enough to make it into a documentary. Second, the feeling of the documentary is pretty much one of a crime caper, in that we get to find out in detail how Tim goes about testing his various theories and his recreation of "The Music Lesson". Third, if you don't care for art, in particular painting, save yourself the trouble and catch another movie, as obviously the entire 'raison d'être' of the documentary is the making of a painting. At some point during his recreation of the painting, Tim gives an exhausted look towards the camera and sighs "it's like watching paint dry", much to the delight of the theater's crowd, which exploded in laughter. Last but not least, there is a nice soundtrack to this movie, composed by Conrad Pope and I've made a mental note to myself to check that out as well. (Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" plays over the documentary's closing credits, an obvious but nice choice.)

I saw this documentary recently at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC, and the early evening screening I saw this at was absolutely PACKED, which I think is great news. Facts always trump fiction, reason why I love a good documentary more than anything. If you are interested in art and you marvel at how Vermeer might've created some of his best work, you will absolutely love this. "Tim's Vermeer" is absolutely worth checking out, be it in the theater or on DVD. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
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Tim just joined the ranks of David Hockney and Philip Steadman in pi$$ing off the Old Master art snobs, as you might see in other reviews here. Incidentally, he consulted with both of those scholars and, while nothing is absolutely proven, he managed to convince each that his optical gadget is at least as believable as Hockney's camera lucida or Steadman's camera obscura.

It's quite amazing that Tim Jenison had not only the idea about Vermeer's possible optical aids, but the means and the time to create such a convincing demonstration. He started by knocking a wall out of his warehouse workspace, and painstakingly reconstructed the room of "Music lesson." Working at various times with live models, this complete tyro to painting created a remarkable replica of that great work, documented in detail in videos that eventually made up this presentation.

It wasn't just the demonstration, plus the demonstration that others could use his method equally well, that supported Tim's ideas. Given the endless time he spent staring at original Vermeers as well as at the scene in his own studio, he noted things like chromatic aberration, a common defect of lenses back then, captured in the original paintings. A true artist (if that phrase actually means much) might have "fixed" such things. A purely literal reproduction, like the one Jenison proposed, would simply record it along with everything else. Then, his own experiments with cameras obscura showed that, although they could help in capturing the lines and shapes of an image, they'd be nearly useless for color reproduction as faithful as Vermeer's. Also, Tim's process help's explain how Vermeer, almost uniquely among the Old Masters, could go directly to color without an underpainting to define the lights and darks. Again, nothing about Vermeer's process is totally proven, but such support makes Tim's remarkable claims even more credible.

Whether or not Vermeer in fact used a gadget like Tim's, this offers a very coherent theory, backed by thorough experimentation. And, for what it's worth, Jenison spent about five years on this project - a period comparable to the time many PhDs need for completing their research. He certainly made a contribution at least the equal of many dissertations.

-- wiredweird, reviewing the release to theaters
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on June 29, 2014
...because once the secret behind a magic trick is revealed, there really is little need to see the trick again. Upon seeing it, you will understand immediately why a magician like Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) would take an interest in producing and directing a film about Vermeer, the Dutch Master, whose paintings far exceed in realism those of his contemporaries. Of course, the film is just as much about Tim Jenison -- a name unknown to me prior to seeing this film -- whose genius is quite astounding. That Tim and Penn have been lifelong friends -- a fact one learns early in the film -- makes perfect sense because Tim's genius is like that of a great magician. Inspired by the David Hockney book "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Technique of the Old Masters", Tim came to believe that there was some "trick" at the heart of the genius of Vermeer -- the kind of trick that is at the heart of much good magic. I am trying to not give away what the trick is, because that would be a spoiler for this film.

The film is hugely thought provoking. I, for one, am entirely convinced that Tim Jenison has discovered the secret of Vermeer, and that leaves me with a mix of feelings. I cannot look at Vermeer in the same way. If Tim Jenison is correct, then Vermeer's genius is that of a magician. Like all great magicians, he guarded his secret so that none of his contemporaries knew how he did what he did, and it took another magician to uncover the secret 350 years later. One gets the sense that both Penn Jillette and Tim Jenison want you to come away still regarding Vermeer with what wonder and affection you brought to his work initially. Their dilemma is that of the magician: If he reveals the trick to you, you are edified but no longer enchanted. Wonder and Naivety give way to Cynicism and Maturity. Despite their protestations, it cannot be otherwise. Magicians guard their secrets for good reason: They know that a part of you really _doesn't_ want to know how the trick is done.

"It's just a trick" is the response that is the bane of the magician's existence. The problem in that phrase is the word "just". There is awe and splendor galore in the technology that makes magic possible. If we think about it, the iPhone is an astoundingly magical device, and it would have seemed as such to anyone who would have been able to view it before its time as recently as 25 years ago. But we tend to celebrate such achievements differently than we do those of an artist. Penn and Tim want us to reconsider that distinction. After all, those in the vanguard of the Enlightenment made achievements in both the Arts and Sciences -- Leonardo Da Vinci comes to mind. These disciplines were integrated within each of these great individuals, so why do we tend to separate them? They have a point, and yet....

The questions with which I am left are these: 1) What distinguishes great art from great craft?, and 2) Was Vermeer a great artist or something else? Watch this film to engage these questions, and you will be forever rewarded.

Highly recommended.
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on July 22, 2014
Fascinating look at a one man's intellectual obsession. Although his experiments and the people that inspired him take some of the "magic" out of Vermeer's accomplishments, they don't demean the artist's accomplishments. Even if the techniques developed during the course of this film were used by Vermeer, the sheer inventiveness and attention to light and composition also employed, are still breath taking.
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on July 1, 2014
Tim's device is incredibly ingenious and it is amazing that he could produce what he did using the device, given his lack of talent or training in the field. However, to suggest that the finished result comes anywhere close to a Vermeer is nonsense and this film avoids using the the opinions of 'experts' who may disagree with Jenison's theory. I would imagine this would appeal to anyone who knows little about art history or art making, as the premise that Vermeer is somehow a one off in art history, simply isn't true. And what of the realist artists who came after him and, not only documented their practices but taught others? Dozens of 19th century Salon artists, orientalists, later photo-realists etc. They were schooled in the 17th Century Dutch tradition and in many cases, their work was equally detailed. To suggest that Vermeer's technique is somehow inhuman (as the film did while talking of the 'camera-like' light in the original) is like suggesting that Einstien secretly used a pocket calculator. Vermeer WAS that talented and, more importantly, had an intellectual training that enabled him to realize what he was seeing. Years and years of drawing from the cast, from life, leaning how to realize form in pencil, charcoal and eventually in paint. A training, a journey. The people in Mr Jenison's painting have no form - a common trait to projected drawing. There is no paint quality whatsoever, nor use of brush stroke to describe form. The painting is also devoid of glazing - the layering of thin washes of paint that give many of Vermeer's paintings the glow described in the film. The way that Jenison applies paint is like a paint by numbers artist.

Another major point not addressed is that it wasn't some visual trick device that changed Medieval art into Renaissance art, but rationalism and the relaxing of the hold the Catholic church had over how artists worked. The great works of the High Renaissance didn't just 'suddenly happen' but both painting and sculpture went through 200 years of a rational intellectual process that re-aquired the lost knowledge of the ancients and eventually led to masters like Vermeer, Velazquez etc in the 1500 and 1600s. Also, to suggest that any Renaissance painting is even trying to be realistic in a photographic way is a nonsense. The Italian Renaissance was always projecting an ideal - a model coupled with the artist's idea of perfect proportion. The same is true of any painting of the 1600s. These are not truly 'realistic' in our sense of the word. The artist is perfecting reality.

Lastly, there is much talk here about 'convincing the experts'. I thought, as a painter, Hockney looked distinctly unimpressed with the finished painting, though interested in the device. As an art teacher (and painter) I recognized his silence followed by seizing on a part of the painting (that worked) to talk about as a recognition of someone's enthusiasm and effort, even if the end result is naive. It's a bad painting. I'm not an 'art snob' and I think any modern (or ancient) technology that helps with the process is fine - the end justifies the means. Vermeer probably did use a camera obscura, but this was as an aid to his intellectual and technical genius, not a substitute. Whilst interesting, this documentary is one-sided and entirely misleading.
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on June 14, 2014
As a portrait artist who paints realism I can't imagine spending the hours Mr. Jenison did on this. I have to hand it to him. It was quite an accomplishment for an untrained artist to complete it. But here's the thing for me; if I had wanted to do this I think it would have been the tool needed. However, for the most part I think it's a starting point to ensure accuracy but that's where it would stop. I think the skill of an accomplished artist like Vermeer would have used it only when he had to and relied on experience most likely learned as an apprentice under a master. Doing paintings with the immense work ethic of Mr. Jenison would have taken the joy out of it for me. I was skeptical of his assessment up until the curving seahorses and now along with Hockney's research it's pretty conclusive to my mind. The film is a worthwhile watch and an interesting ride of insight into one of the finest artists the world has known. I wanted to see a side by side comparison though. And as a side note his use of his daughter in the piece was great. What a sweet face.

I watched this a second time. Now I'm not convinced that Vermeer was so much a schooled artist after all but rather a technician that enabled him to become the equivalent of the first real camera; not dependent on chemistry affected by light but putting down paint accurately enough to render a virtual copy. To his credit he had great taste in composition and very pleasing subject matter. I don't think it was uncommon to take long periods to paint a complete painting and even today there are artists who devote great amounts of time to a piece. But, as Tim Jenison demonstrated, a third of a year at the task would make most people not attempt it this way. Now I'm really curious to compare notes on Norman Rockwell and Eakins because they used photography prominently in their work. And now ultra realism is a recognized art form that surpasses what Vermeer did. What's that saying "the future is past"? Intriguing movie.
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on September 12, 2014
This documentary is just fascinating, a really great job of scientific detective work and experimentation. I had heard that Vermeer knew a really advanced lens crafter in Holland in a book by Bill Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything) which could have explained Vermeer's rise from obscure painter to the top of the art world, so this caught my eye. Tim is a very cool and successful guy, and Penn is an old friend, and they made this film in a sort of haphazard way, so the editing is a bit funky, but that is part of the charm. Tim's three daughters get involved. The only thing lacking was a better exposition of the science involved. Also, I thought the interviews with the Brits were a waste of time and added nothing to the exposition. Otherwise, great art history! Makes you redefine the notion of artistic talent! Make sure you get it in HD, as detail is important (in fact, it's the whole point!).
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on October 24, 2015
I had seen the name and somewhat nondescript packaging and it just never really grabbed my attention. I quite literally clicked on it by accident when looking for something new to watch and noticed in the description that Penn and Teller were producer and director for it.

The basic mystery concerns how painters went from slightly better than cavemen scrawling cartoony 2D doodles to near photorealistic level in a single generation. The film's protagonist decided that if he discovered the secret, even he (a decidedly non-skilled painter) could produce a similar quality painting.

It isn't spoiling too much to say he might be on to something, otherwise they wouldn't have made a feature film about it... Nonetheless it is well worth watching to see the process of discovery and his amazing efforts at recreating it. I highly recommend it for a fascinating journey.
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on September 10, 2014
This is my kind of movie. A genius inventor sets out to solve a problem. How did Vermeer capture the scenes he painted with such accuracy? Was some form of optics involved? Can an untrained person recreate one of his masterpieces using optic technology of the period?
Created by Penn and Teller, one expects a snarky take on the subject. Fortunately, this is not the case and the material is presented with respect and some mild humor. Also, Teller directs with a light hand (no showy tricks involved) and I must say his choice of music works beautifully.
I'm no art historian and don't have a vested interest in whether his paintings were freehand or created with technological aids, yet I found the subject fascinating, and the whole project very cool.
I could go on (this movie gives the viewer a lot to chew on, is the final product art? For example) but I'll just end by saying that it's an interesting film and one that is fun to discuss with friends afterward.
Four stars because it does drag a little during the second half.
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on July 5, 2014
Tim’s Vermeer is not a fictional story, although some would argue that it’s also not entirely factual either. It was the story of Tim Jenison’s quest to reenact the painting of one of Vermeer’s paintings, The Music Lesson. The movie documents the step-by-step process that he used, in addition to theories that Jenison and others have about Vermeer. It was engaging and very interesting from an art history perspective. Mr. Jenison was fortunate to have the time and money to indulge in such a lengthy and costly obsession. I really enjoyed the movie, but in the end, wondered if someone with no interest in art would.
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