by Kathie Smith
Tim Jenison is first and foremost an inventor. Co-founder of NewTek, an innovative hardware and software company at the forefront of video imaging tools, Jenison was an early, enthusiastic adopter of personal computer in the 1970s. Like all great inventors, Jenison possesses a fascinating combination of curiosity, creativity and idiosyncratic brainpower. Some will have you believe that Tim’s Vermeer—a film documenting Jenison’s investigation into the great Dutch master’s techniques—is a movie about artistry vs. craft, subjectivity vs. objectivity, and genius vs. ingenuity. And while these are certainly subjects approached in this doc, they are the products of Jenison’s unique mirth and commitment. As the title states, this inquiry and the magical results are equal parts Tim and Vermeer.
Producers: Penn Jillette, Farley Ziegler, Teller, Tim Jenison, Glen S. Alai, Peter Adam Golden
Cinematographer: Shane F. Kelly
Editor: Patrick Sheffield
Music: Conrad Pope
Cast: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, David Hockney, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, Colin Blakemore, Teller
Premiere: September 5, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 6, 2013
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classic
As explained by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller who plays informal host), Jenison’s obsession with Vermeer began when his daughter gave him a copy of David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge that hypothesizes about the use of optical tools by old masters like Caravaggio, Velázquez, da Vinci, and, yes, Vermeer. As the theory goes, these painters, who marked such a dramatic shift in realistic style of painting, likely used tools available to them at the time including glass lenses and the camera obscura. Jenison latched onto this idea in a very big way, and decided that he wanted to put this theorem to the test with no short cuts—paint a Vermeer, specifically The Music Lesson, with only the materials and scenarios available in the 15th century.
There is an undeniable brilliance and allure to the paintings of Johannes Vermeer (just ask the The Frick Collection who hosted a rare US exhibition of his paintings and saw over 235,000 visitors in three months). Vermeer and his contemporaries probably protected the secrets of their techniques for proprietary reasons; these artists weren’t cheating, as the theory might seem to imply, but were instead innovating with wild abandon to the point where 350 years later we can’t figure it out. As a result, there is little or no documentation for anything that Jenison was attempting, and we get to ride shotgun as he throws caution to wind on the sole ambitions of his intellect—and for any inquisitive art lover, it is quite a trip. The sense of discovery in this very efficient 80 minute film is not only captivating but also incredibly suspenseful—and I fully intend on leaving the thrill of those findings to the viewer.
Despite the fact that the camera is trained on Jenison throughout, an ego project this is not. When Jillette heard about Jenison’s idea of attempting to paint a Vermeer and perhaps making a video about it, Jullette asked him to put on the brakes. In two weeks time, he put together a modest filmmaking crew and went back to Jenison and said, okay, let’s do this. And while Jenison’s tenacity is on full display—as he paints for the first time and constructs Vermeer’s studio and painting down to the very last detail—it’s the presence of the film crew that forced him to see his vision through to the end. The pleasures and triumphs of Tim’s Vermeer have nothing to do with expanding or venerating documentary film form but the razor sharp awareness towards a distinct and enigmatic subject and that is, without a doubt, Tim Jenison.