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TIFF Review: Teller's Clever Art Mystery Doc 'Tim's Vermeer' Plays Like Magic (CLIP)

Thompson on Hollywood By David D'Arcy | Thompson on Hollywood September 10, 2013 at 2:25PM

“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.
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Jan Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring"
Jan Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring"

By the time Jenison went to his friend Penn -- in Las Vegas, another unlikely place for a revolution in art -- he was ready for the challenge. Penn would produce the film, shot on three HD cameras which Tim would activate. Teller would direct.

The doc, distilled from 250 hours of footage into a watchable journey, even if Tim is sitting down most of the time, is a thoroughly American story of triumph through imagination, hard work and commitment. Tim paints "The Music Lesson" by Vermeer -- or, we should say, he traces it -- over the course of a grueling seven months.

In preparation, Tim, a prodigious organist, taught himself to paint, and he taught himself Dutch. This kind of dedication is indication enough that his experiment proves that not anyone can paint a Vermeer.

"Tim’s Vermeer" does show that someone with super-human focus can replicate the effects that Vermeer achieved. You can see the affinities that his work has with Penn and Teller's, as Penn interlocutes like a carnival barker, this time not seeking to hide the mechanics of magic tricks, but rather trying to make the viewer notice the trick as it's revealed.

Before you see "Tim’s Vermeer" as a new Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain and exposing the emperor for the naked impostor that he might be, remember the doc doesn't prove that Vermeer painted this way, only that a painting can be made (or remade) in the style in which some think Vermeer painted. The star is Jenison, the extraordinary ordinary hobbyist who made it happen.

And Vermeer should be judged by his creations, not by the road that got him there.

Lest we turn Tim’s achievement into a nuts-and-bolts show-me parable, unfunded by tax dollars, that some Tea Party purist might celebrate, remember that the crucial ingredient in Jenison’s seemingly quixotic project is a free spirit. That’s what fuels invention as much as anything else.

"Tim’s Vermeer" plays like magic with a film audience, which doesn’t need advanced degrees to warm to Vermeer or Tim Jenison. Watch for awards in this doc season.

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto, Tim's Vermeer


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.