Tim's Vermeer Reviews
The focus of the documentary is Tim Jenison, a sort of Renaissance man known in the world of video technology, who has an obsession with the 17th century painter. He has an idea that Vermeer used a simple lens and mirror system to paint his masterpieces. The film then follows him on his ten year journey, during which time he meets David Hockney, visits Vermeer's hometown, and also gets to examine, for thirty minutes, one of the Queen's Vermeers at Buckingham palace.
In terms of film making technique, there's not a lot to comment on one way or the other; it's well edited, the music is good, and the story points follow logically. The only nagging thing for me, though is I would have liked to have seen more art experts discuss Tim's project, either in terms of why it was reasonable or why it wasn't. We hear from David Hockney who recently wrote a book about lens systems and painting, but he is a proponent of Tim's method. Without countering opinions, the film feels lopsided. But, this is from the point of view that the film is about art history or rediscovering a method, and the film is about much more than that.
I think the real point of the film is watching Tim follow his dream for ten years, (a point mentioned in many reviews of this film) and not whether he possibly found how Vermeer made some of his works. I say "possibly" because we don't have any records of Vermeer's process, other than the paintings themselves, which Hockney says are documents that give clues to the process, a point that comes up during Tim's work when he discovers some interesting parallels in his and Vermeer's work. These discoveries seem awfully convincing. Again, I would have liked to have seen some art historians discuss the final painting and at least tentatively give some opinions on the matter. Without experiencing different opinions on this project, we are left wondering. I think that's fine in theory, however unless one has a background in art history, and Vermeer in particular, it's hard to know. The finished painting looks just like a Vermeer, but who am I to judge whether the method used was the same as Vermeer's. As I said, on some level the film isn't about that question, but it'd sure be nice to know. I keep getting pulled in two different directions. However, the title of the film is "Tim's Vermeer," and not "Vermeer's Magic Rediscovered."
This leads to an interesting question. If one doesn't know how something was made, but finds a way to duplicate the original, is the duplicate the original method? In other words, say someone shows me a box. I can hear a cricket inside the box--or at least I think it's a cricket--it sounds like one. When I shake it, I hear something move and the sound stops. If I leave it alone for a while the sound starts again--just like a real cricket. I then decide to duplicate this, however, I don;t have a cricket so I use a small sound player that turns off if it is moved too much. If I present the original box and my version to someone, it is not possible for him or her to tell them apart without opening the boxes. Does this mean that my box, with the player, is the "same" as the original? This is the position one finds oneself in when thinking about Tim's finished painting. Did he find the method or not? It sure looks like it, but who am I to judge? We may never know, unless documentation surfaces that sheds light on the subject, or a thorough examination of Vermeer's works are done in light of Tim's method.
One of Vermeer's paintings shows a painter painting a woman. The painter has their back to us, so it is not possible to tell their identity--it could be anyone. The painter is using a traditional painting method--a palette and arm rest; he is not using Tim's lens system. So, if Vermeer used Tim's method, he didn't expose this in the painting. On another note, many other paintings produced at the time show the same sort of masterly technique and we know that they didn't use Tim's method. Franz Hals, Jan de Brey, Gerrit Van Honthorst, and Bartholemeus Van der Heslt didn't use a mirror and lens, and produced works just as "photo realistic" as Vermeer.
Watching Tim produce his "Vermeer" is an amazing and inspiring process, and Tim should certainly feel proud. Hopefully, it will inspire the right people to do more research on Vermeer with Tim's method in mind. Some critics have mentioned that the film glorified a guy with a bunch of money and time on his hands to pursue his dream. Maybe, but I think there's some magic in watching Tim. He's a dreamer. I think we need more dreamers, whether rich or not.
In the end, though, there is a part of me that wishes Tim hadn't found this method. It is the same part of me that doesn't want to know how Copperfield made the State of Liberty or the Lear Jet vanish. Vermeer's paintings are a kind of magic, and knowing a possible method for how they were made, takes away that magic. Some people say that knowing how a trick is done doesn't take away from the beauty and artistry. I happen to disagree; I don't want to see the modus operandi. I don't want to know it was "just" a lens and a shaving mirror. As Tim shows in the movie, making his version is a very tedious and time consuming task--it took him a week to paint a carpet, an effort that looks marvelous when it's finished. In the end, though one has to ask themselves how much of Vermeer's genius was just hard work and dedication. Edison said genius was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Call me a dreamer but I prefer to think of genius as magic coming from the gods in the form of an effortless wind that pushes an artist's soul into unchartered territory. The point was made in the film that art critics didn't want to discuss the lens and mirror system because they felt it was "cheating," an accusation that Tim feels is childish. Maybe the critics are right--maybe it is cheating. Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones gives a harsh review of the film, "Neither he nor the filmmakers show any sense of the greatness of great art. The film is a depressing attempt to reduce genius to a trick. On the commentary, Penn keeps crassly saying Vermeer looks "photographic" and "cinematic", and the film purportedly proves that all the artist's magic lay in the use of an optical machine." Hard to argue with that.
When it's all said and done, this is a great story and I look forward to seeing more documentary films of this sort from Penn and Teller. I prefer films that inspire me to "do something" after the film; research, think, or write. "Tim's Vermeer" certainly does that.
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