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Thursday, January 30, 2014


Tim Jenison (right) demonstrates his first painting experiment to his friend, producer Penn Jillette (right). Photo by Carlo Villarreal, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.   
2013, 80 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some strong language

Review by Joshua Handler

Penn and Teller's Tim's Vermeer is one of the most entertaining documentaries to have come out in ages - I've seen it twice and could easily watch it a third time.  At a lean 80 minutes, this film tells a truly wacky story: how inventor, not artist, Tim Jenison attempts to paint a copy of Vermeer's The Music Lesson.  Now why would he want to do that?  After reading some books on the subject, Jenison hypothesizes that Vermeer used special tools to help him paint with the level of detail that he did - no human eye could paint with Vermeer's level of detail.  So Jenison creates (or recreates) devices that Vermeer may have used and decides to test his hypothesis.  How Jenison tests it is what you'll see in the movie.

As a piece of storytelling/editing, this is masterful. The film was shot over five years or so which meant that countless hours of footage were shot for the film.  For it to be so incredibly funny, economical, and moving in a brief 80 minutes is a miracle.  Teller directs, Penn narrates, but Jenison is our real guide.  He is a truly brilliant man and one who I could listen to and watch for 80 more minutes.  His unwavering dedication to this project is admirable and dry sense of humor and nonchalant attitude about the outrageous undertakings at hand make him a character who is endlessly watchable.

In addition to being a remarkable piece of entertainment, Tim's Vermeer dares to ask whether the supposed "geniuses" of art like Vermeer were actual geniuses or just really brilliant inventors.  If Vermeer used devices similar to those Jenison used, would he still be a "genius"?  A master?  No.  He would just be an ordinary painter with an extraordinary talent for inventing.

Overall, Tim's Vermeer is a perfect documentary for people who don't like documentaries.  People who don't like docs usually haven't seen the good ones or many at all and complain that they're boring or lifeless.  "Couldn't I just watch this on the news?" they may ask.  Well, the news won't be showing a story like this.  They don't have the footage, time, or editors to create a production like Tim's Vermeer.  As one of the filmmaker's said at a Q&A Tuesday night, someone could walk into this movie with no knowledge of Vermeer, Jenison, or anything on the other topics covered in the film and still view this movie.  It's completely accessible, digestible, hilariously funny, and genuinely jaw-dropping in its revelations.  This is documentary filmmaking that anyone would enjoy and I can only hope this movie gets the audience that it deserves.  Vermeer's work and Tim's Vermeer are art; so is this movie.


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