“So entertaining that audiences hardly even realize how incendiary it is, Tim’s Vermeer stirs up a flurry of scandal in the hallowed realm of art history,” begins Variety‘s Peter Debruge. “Obsessive inventor Tim Jenison has a hunch that the only explanation for the photorealistic quality evident in the work of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is that he ‘cheated,’ using lenses or some other technological apparatus to achieve such remarkable detail. Jenison devises a five-year science experiment to test his theory, emerging with an uncanny crowdpleaser—the secret weapon in Sony Pictures Classics’ fall arsenal—that plays like the ultimate episode of MythBusters.”
“Narrated by Penn, Tim’s Vermeer elaborates on a theory—put forth most famously by British professor Phillip Steadman in his book Vermeer’s Camera—that Vermeer’s paintings were so photo-realistic that he must have used early technological tools such as the Camera Obscura,” explains Anthony Kaufman in Screen Daily. “In the first scene, Penn introduces us to his friend, Jenison, an inventor from an early age—he could fix anything electronic—who became intrigued with Steadman’s hypothesis and began a multi-year quest to realize his dream of ‘painting a Vermeer.’ … Ultimately, Jenison’s experiment does appear to produce some startling revelations. But it’s hard to say. Penn and Teller leave the film open-ended, allowing viewers to debate and decide upon the legitimacy of Jenison’s work.”
“To people working in the video industry, Jenison is most known as the creator of the Video Toaster,” notes Jordan M. Smith at Ioncinema. “He’s a tinkerer whose pursuit for knowledge sees no bounds. Though his career started in repairing arcade machines, his interest in the mechanics of player pianos as a teen led him to restore one and learn to play it by slowing down the rolls to mime the fingerings of old Fats Waller tunes.” Here, Jenison aims “to recreate Vermeer’s most revered work, The Music Lesson, with hilarious and heartrending dedication to investigating the mechanics behind immaculate artistry.”
“The documentary,” notes John Horn in the Los Angeles Times, “is an almost existential personal quest, as Jenison’s painting takes months of long days of work. At one point, he concedes that were it not for Teller’s film crew he would probably ditch the whole effort.”
“For decades now, Penn & Teller have made a living pricking the balloon of illusion, showing the skill and sheer tenacity behind magical performances that’s as compelling as any level of deceit or subterfuge,” writes Jason Gorber at Twitch. “What makes their shtick so engaging is that they go out of their way to show you how the trick was done, and then still manage to awaken within you that sense of wonder you first got when as a child you saw some hack do the ball-and-cup trick at a birthday party.” As for Jenison’s project: “Quite simply, it’s a true magic, a human magic, the magic of science and technology rather than the hokum of belief and dogma.”
“Teller’s rough, uncomplicated filmmaking style does little to elaborate on Jenison’s story, as the subject’s unending curiosity singlehandedly carries each scene,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “On the whole, the lightweight style often feels like an episode of Penn & Teller’s old Showtime series Bullshit without the fierce polemics.”
“It’s a cool hypothesis, catnip for art-history buffs, but it can’t quite sustain feature length,” finds Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club, where he gives the film a B-. But for Now Toronto‘s Radheyan Simonpillai, it’s a “comic delight.”
“And Jenison has another theory that could, if this lot wanted to jump back into it, yield another film,” notes In Contention‘s Kristopher Tapley. Tim’s Vermeer was one of Tapley’s favorite films at Telluride, where, over dinner, Jenison “told me he’s planning another experiment regarding Caravaggio’s work in what would be called ‘chiaroscuro.’ Perhaps, then, we’ll one day see Tim’s Caravaggio? For his trouble, Jenison received one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I’ve seen in my five years attending Telluride.”
After the Telluride premiere, Tim’s Vermeer screened in the TIFF Docs program in Toronto. Next stop: New York.
Update, 9/11: “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,” warns David D’Arcy at Thompson on Hollywood, “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…. And Vermeer should be judged by his creations, not by the road that got him there.”
Updates, 9/14: “It’s partly just a story of a rich, bright man exerting the the full force of his abilities and resources upon a slippery dream,” writes Nicolas Rapold for Film Comment. “But what’s fascinating is how Penn & Teller, who ordinarily play the skeptic, accept the premise that Vermeer’s technique was a glorified form of copying…. The film’s fallacies about art open up just as many philosophical issues as Jenison’s technical experiments do.”
“Teller manages a careful enough balance between painstaking technique and a larger cultural context over 80 brisk minutes to make even minor revelations feel like major moments,” writes William Goss at Film.com. “and although he may not display the formal chops to rival the likes of F for Fake or Exit Through the Gift Shop, this alone bodes well enough for his coming career behind the camera. After all, Tim’s Vermeer isn’t just a sneakily accessible exercise in art studies with a priceless end credits song; it’s the most fun you’ll have watching paint dry all year.”
Update, 12/6: “Do we even want to see a movie arguing that the work of one of the greatest artists of all time could be re-created by a dude with some mirrors and no actual ability to paint?” wonders Bilge Ebiri in Vulture. “I’m not sure. But Tim’s Vermeer has more on its mind than that. In effect, Penn, Teller, and Jenison are exploring the hard border between technology and art, about the notion that any artist who uses this kind of technological aid must, in some way, be ‘cheating.’ David Hockney actually shows up at one point to lend credence to Tim’s work and to support the notion that, back in the day, there was no real divide between inventors and artists—that innovation went hand in hand with inspiration.”
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