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Teller Speaks! Talking Wondrously Mind-Boggling Art Doc 'Tim's Vermeer'

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood January 30, 2014 at 11:22AM

“Tim’s Vermeer” is a beautiful documentary, winningly compact at only 80 minutes, about an artist’s labor of love. It is also about an endearing technological genius, inventor Tim Jenison, and his insistence that art and technology are closer than they appear.
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"Tim's Vermeer"
"Tim's Vermeer"

You shot 2400 hours of footage. Were there any juicy things you had to leave out of the final film?

Tim is not a day person. But in order to paint under the conditions of Vermeer, you have to become a day person. Instead of getting up at his usual noon or one o’clock in the afternoon, and staying up the night working on his technological ideas, when the world is dead and you can have time to think, if there was light coming in Tim’s window, it was time to get up. He said to me that he got in the habit of taking three aspirin every morning, because the pain in his back was so bad from leaning over the painting that he knew he had to head that off.

[Another thing not in the film] is that Tim looked up one of Vermeer’s paintings called “Officer and Laughing Girl.” In the painting there’s a partially opened window. In the partially opened window, you can see reflections. The reflections are in the shape of Gothic arches. There are lots of people around who believe that Vermeer just imagined these scenes and then painted them. Tim is very clearly of the opinion that Vermeer could not have painted such scenes without very real things to look at. So when Tim saw these arch reflections in that window, he thought “What could have caused those?” So when we went to Delft, Tim went to the two locations where Vermeer painted. One was at his father’s tavern, called Mechelen, probably up on the second floor. When I visited Tim at [where the since destroyed Mechelen buildling would have been], Tim said, “Let me just see, if I was at Mechelen, and I opened up the window at a partial angle, what would that window reflect?” So he literally angled his iPhone at the angle that the window would have been at, and he tipped the iPhone at just a slight angle like the window, and there were the arches of the local church. That’s a shivery fucking moment!

As a magician, were you drawn to the idea of discovering the mechanics behind something seemingly impossible or wondrous?

I was intrigued by the whole notion of solving this 350-year-old mystery. The funny thing is that the 45-degree angle mirror comes straight out of magic. When you see an empty box, and they close the door, and they open it up, and somebody pops up, three out of four times the way that person has been masked is with a 45-degree angle mirror reflecting the interior of the box in a way that’s very deceptive. So seeing that magic principle suddenly unlock this 350 year old mystery was amazing to me.

But another thing is that in magic you see a miraculous result. If somebody gives you a quick little explanation of the process, you go, “Oh, is that all it was?” But if I spend 40 minutes with someone, really showing them how a magic trick works, and you see in every detail exactly every maneuver, by the time I’m done with you, you’ll be more amazed by the secret to that trick than you were by the effect.

And that’s something of the experience at the core of this movie. The core of this movie is that if you know what the artist did, to really make this painting happen, the power of it is multiplied many times. The proof of this is that when we played Telluride, we had a very large audience who were really very taken by the film. At the end of the film, we introduced Tim. The audience immediately rose to their feet as if he were the conquering hero. Tim had brought the painting along, and unveiled the painting there, and the crowd gathered around it like it was a holy icon. Now, if they’d seen that painting in a museum, they’d have said “That’s a really nice painting,” but because they were now participants, and knew what a human being had to do to achieve an amazing thing like that -- to achieve a miracle, to achieve a magic trick -- they now had a whole different dimension of love for it and for the creator of the painting.

I came away from this film with the impression that Tim Jenison is the smartest guy on Earth.

I don’t think you’re mistaken about that. He’s certainly smarter than any other human being I know. He’s very smart, but you adore him. He’s never pompous, he never makes big claims. And, in fact, even with all of the evidence he brings to the idea that maybe his device was the device that Vermeer had used, he still gets to the end of the film and says “I think I’m about 90% convinced.” While everybody else in the world makes exaggerated claims, Tim always pulls back. Tim always says, “It could have been that.” And that makes him somebody you can’t help loving. Somebody who has that little bullshit in his system, and that much energy and smarts and wit.

We’re really fortunate that he’s funny. The movie really feels to me like a very strange comedy. It feels like this comedy built on this extraordinary, odd, almost Samuel Beckett kind of idea of watching somebody make a painting as a movie. But it’s completely rescued by the fact that Tim’s funny. So we’re always with him. Another day, more dots. 

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Tim's Vermeer, Teller, Documentary, Documentaries


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