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‘Tim’s Vermeer’: A non-painter makes art a science

Tim Jenisadjusts model’s wig during re-creatiexperiment depicted documentary “Tim’s Vermeer.”  |   SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Tim Jenison adjusts a model’s wig during the re-creation experiment depicted in the documentary “Tim’s Vermeer.” | SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

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‘Tim’s Vermeer’ ★★★

Sony Pictures Classics presents a documentary directed by Teller. Running time: 80 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: March 15, 2014 6:08AM

For those of us who can barely draw a stick figure worthy of a “WALK/DON’T WALK” sign, great art is an unfathomable wonder, a mystery you don’t really want to solve.

Every time I walk through the Art Institute of Chicago and I behold such famous works as Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” or Gustav Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day” or Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” I’m newly amazed.

Am I interested in the backstory of such timeless works of art? Sure. There’s a part of me that wonders: How did he do that?

Few artists have inspired the “How did he do it?” question as frequently as the 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, who created astonishingly detailed, richly vibrant photo-realistic works a century and a half before photography was invented.

Was Vermeer actually capable of creating these works from his imagination, of defying science and somehow turning his eye into the equivalent of a human light meter? Or did he use some sort of device to essentially capture photographic precision?

This is the quest of “Tim’s Vermeer.”

The question of whether Vermeer used some sort of camera obscura contraption to create his works has been raised before by the likes of art historian Philip Steadman and artist David Hockney (both of whom appear in this film), but nobody has attempted to solve the mystery with the mad-genius obsession of one Tim Jenison, a video-equipment innovator and multimillionaire entrepreneur who apparently has been so successful he has a LOT of time on his hands to pursue elaborately whimsical quests.

Voiced and produced by Penn Jillette and directed by his partner-in-magic Teller, “Tim’s Vermeer” chronicles Jenison’s years-long effort to figure out just how Vermeer was able to produce incredibly intricate, nearly three-dimensional paintings such as “The Music Lesson.”

Mirrors and relatively sophisticated lenses were popular in the Holland in the 1600s, and it’s Jenison’s theory that Vermeer created an optical device that allowed him to duplicate a setting almost as if were “tracing” the original as opposed to creating it freehand. Would this make Vermeer a “cheat” of sorts, or just a different kind of genius?

“I’m not a painter,” Jenison reminds us time and again, yet he embarks on a painstaking, sometimes excruciatingly tedious quest to re-create the setting of “The Music Lesson” down to the most intricate stitching of the tapestries, the light on the wall, the woodwork and every other detail in the painting. The resourceful Mr. Jenison builds a set, enlists the help of live models and even journeys to Buckingham Palace, where the queen grants him a 30-minute audience with the original painting, under the condition Jenison record his impressions only with his mind.

After years of research, Jenison retreats to a warehouse in Texas and attempts to re-create “The Music Lesson” with the aid of a relatively simple mirrored tool he has created. The final result, achieved after more than four months of intense work, is … well, astonishing.

Jenison has a fertile mind, but he’s kind of a low-key guy, offering such underwhelming insights as, “You know, it gets old, painting the carpet [that appears in the foreground of ‘The Music Lesson’].”

And while Penn and Teller certainly know how to tell a story, “Tim’s Vermeer” is at times a chore to sit through, even with a brisk 80-minute running time. We’re literally watching paint dry. And if ever a documentary needed to be filmed in rich, vibrant palettes, it’s this one, yet “Tim’s Vermeer” was digitally shot in flat-looking, often unattractive tones that make this look like an extended home movie.

Still. You won’t believe the painting created by this guy who cannot paint. Based on math and optics, it still seems like magic.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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