Monday, March 24, 2014

Tim's Vermeer (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Tim's Vermeer

Aha! Here is Teller, the sneaky and silent half of the illusionist duo Penn & Teller, donning his director's magic hat in "Tim's Vermeer". This is a beguiling documentary highlighting the jolly yet intense character of Tim Jenison and his obsession with artist Johannes Vermeer.

Tim is not a painter by profession. He is an inventor, having his own digital entertainment company NewTek that produces thrilling cutting edge sequences in video and film. Tim has invented quirky robots, video panels known as "video toasters", numerous flying machines and in what seems his most whimsical venture, he created something that looks like a household fan strapped to his back.

But at twilight, when the shadows lengthen and Tim is vexed by insomnia, he thinks of Vermeer and wanting to become like him.

One painting in particular calls to him, a Vermeer titled "The Music Lesson". The manner of the light in the work fascinates, might it be possible to duplicate it through optical mirrored means, Tim wonders?

In the film, Tim acknowledges that he has read of such things by reading David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge, that alleges that many Old Masters employed a camera obscura, basically a mirror in a box, allowing these artists to render near photographic renderings in oil. Over the last two decades the theory was met with great derision  by art historians.

No matter.

We get the feeling that Tim wants to paint this particular work, not because he wants to downplay Vermeer's accomplishment but rather for the simple fact that he deeply loves the painting.

The enclosed environment of "The Music Lesson" appeals to Tim. For him, the painting speaks of a laboratory.

So here is his chance.

Tim's quest is told in the manner of a Twilight Zone tale and who better to take on the part of Rod Serling's narration, but Penn Jillette, who is both deadpan and wildly joyful by turns.

Tim, who has never picked up a brush to paint, discovers that he can copy an image as is by a simple mirror and a light source.

As Tim is a stickler for detail, he constructs his own room with Vermeer era windows, some nearly identical carpets, casings, wainscoting and chairs, including the very same type of musical instruments shown in the painting.

Some of this he makes himself but fear not. Jenison has professional help and lots of it.

We see Tim poring over dangerous looking lathe and carving machines and fixing molds. Tim is a hybrid of The Dark Knight and Santa Claus, constructing his zeitgeist in a remote cave or concocting his Christmas confection, rich with pomegranates and white lace. The construction of the room alone takes nearly two hundred days and he travels to Holland to ground his own pigments.

Tim grinds his own glass to make the curving mirror.

He is a man possessed.

Finally he sits down to paint.

At first things go well, but alas, when he reaches the carpet Tim goes nearly mad in trying to render the dizzying texture of the fabric. His frustration and mania recalls Edgar Allan Poe and his fever with several chambers in "The Masque of the Red Death".

Still, he paints on, despite back pain, tiredness and in one instance, carbon monoxide poisoning.

When he finally completes the painting, after a five year experience, Tim bursts into tears.

Understandably so.

Within this odyssey, David Hockney appears scrutinizing the painting with terrific enthusiasm and looking very well seasoned. There is also a cameo by Martin Mull, clearly beside himself.

In a sense, Tim Jenison is an anti-hero. The documentary shows this man struggling, pushing the limits of his body and patience, resolute and steadfast. His photographic but painted canvas via mirrors can be seen as a feat in its own right.

Yet the real power and imagination in  "Tim's Vermeer" comes from the portrait of Jenison himself and his Faustian adventure with Johannes Vermeer.

This startlingly suspenseful documentary is less about mirrors and more about Tim's fever and the vision that curls within his heart as infernal as Dante.

When we see the finished product on Tim's wall---objectively made by photographic technique--- it is as if anyone could paint this or buy the art at Costco or Walmart.

But Tim alone knows the efforts involved, and in keeping with the comedy of Penn & Teller, this is the joke.

Write Ian at

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