"Tim's Vermeer"
"Tim's Vermeer"

“Tim’s Vermeer” is something that Mark Twain could have thought up.

It applies a hard-headed empirical reality check in the spirit of Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Edison to the theory that the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used technology (lenses) to arrive at a precision that could not have been achieved with his eyes alone.

We get a respectable painting and a clever movie out of this gambit. And we get a quirky look into the mind of an inventor, Tim Jenison, in the directorial feature debut of Teller, produced by his comedy and performance partner, Penn Gillette.

"Tim’s Vermeer" is a technological twist on the how-to (or how-not-to) first-person doc approach of "Super-Size Me." Jenison is an inventor in San Antonio, Texas, whose creations include the NewTek firm, the videotoaster, an airplane made entirely from elements that he bought at WalMart, and a lip-synching duck. And he’s got a wit along with that tech whimsy. This is not your ordinary tech-nerd.

Tim got wind of the theory that Vermeer used technical help when painting his works, especially the late ones where Vermeer creates an extraordinarily soft mood and tone, and a precision that draws your eye into what seems an infinity of invention. It’s a notion that has been around the art world for some two decades, promoted by the painter David Hockney and, among others, the journalist Lawrence Weschler.   

Preposterous and heretical at first, it seemed to have a logic on closer examination. It also threatened to sabotage Vermeer’s reputation, if it showed that “all” the artist did was trace a reflected composition that had been projected by a camera obscura  -- a series of reflections - onto a surface. But it had not been tried as an experiment. Could anybody be a Vermeer? Even a tech guy in, of all places, Texas?