Tim's Vermeer: A Tricky, Magical Film from Penn and Teller
Opens February 14 at the SF Embarcadero and February 21 at the Elmwood in Berkeley

Review by Gar Smith
Saturday February 15, 2014 - 11:22:00 AM

The new film from Penn and Teller (the multitasking Odd Couple behind the X-rated comic-doc, "The Aristocrats") is an irresistibly entertaining film about a self-effacing Texas inventor and his obsession with the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

There is a mystery that drives this film. But, in this case, it's not a question of "Whodunnit?" It's more a matter of "Howdunnit?"

There was always something special about Vemeer's masterpieces —a certain heightened clarity and illumination that give canvases like "Girl with a Pearl Earring" an eerie, almost photographic presence.

More than eight years ago, a Texas tinkerer named Tim Jenison became hooked on the idea that there was a special trick at work behind Vermeer's paintings. Jenison became fixated on trying to prove his suspicions. Bolstered by his experience as a pioneering designer of desktop video and CGI imagery, Jenison believed he knew Vermeer's secret: It was all done with mirrors—some 150 years before the invention of photography, Vermeer had found a way to capture living images by projecting them on canvas.

This theory clearly appealed to a pair of professional magicians like Penn and Teller. 

Although only 35 of Vermeer's work are known to exist, the collection was sufficient to provide Jenison with his first clues. On close inspection, it is revealed that many of the paintings were staged within the confines of a single room—Vermeer's studio apartment in Delft. And there was something about the light. The human retina does not perceive light in the way that Vermeer painted it. It was, instead, the way light is captured through the lens of a camera. 

That was the key. Vermeer, Jenison reasoned, had relied on a room-sized camera obscura—essentially a large, walk-in "pin-hole" camera that projects an image from the outside world upside down on the back wall of a darkened box. 

Teller's direction quickly establishes Jenison's quirky but easy-going, can-do nature. Jenison is shown skating around a parking lot with a large office fan strapped on his back to increase his speed. He's shown walking from his car and taking off for a hop in a small personal helicopter. He's shown tinkering with electronics and mirrors. He's shown meticulously recreating a 17th century table leg on a lathe. 

Jenison is a clever fellow but, as he admits upfront: "I am not a painter." Nonetheless, he assigns himself an unlikely task: "To paint a Vermeer" using the tools he believed the Dutch master might have employed. 

An inventor who is as good with his hands as he is with his brain, Jenison used a furnace to manufacture the glass that he ground by hand to fashion the lens of his own camera obscura—once again, using only the materials and technology available in the 17th century. 

Jenison visited Vermeer's dwelling in the town of Delft to study the light. Back home in Texas, he created a palette of pigments — made by hand using nothing but the minerals and oils that would have been available to Vermeer. 

The painting Jenison choses to replicate is Vermeer's "The Music Lesson." And, in order to fairly test his hypothesis, Jenison is compelled to recreate Vermeer's studio in a section of his vast Texas warehouse. He builds his replica studio in a spot where the windows face the sun at the same angle. The recreation of Vermeer's studio is a painstaking process involving fashioning wood into period furniture, recreating the iron-and-glass windows, searching for similar samples of cloth and clothing, commissioning the creation of matching ceramics, hiring costumed models to stand in position for hours at a time. 

In the course of the film, Jenison will discover how it is possible to achieve the camera obscura effect in normal light. He also encounters problems that threaten to torpedo his quest. Each time, his remarkably nimble mind comes up with flashes of insight that send him down new avenues of exploration, using new tools that Vermeer may —or may not—have used to "paint photographs." 

Jenison's quest was buoyed by the research (and controversial speculation) of Philip Steadman, the author of Vermeer's Camera and the British artist David Hockney who is initially intrigued by Jenison's discoveries and finds himself finally, and delightedly, convinced. Both Steadman and Hockey are featured in the film. 

Finally, with the stage set, the sleight-of-hand needs to be replaced by might-of-hand. 

Since Jenison is "not a painter," the work goes slowly. He must paint his canvas slowly, looking at a portion of the composition captured in the reflection of a small round mirror. The work proceeds as an application of millions of small strokes, matching color and design at a micro-level. 

The work takes months. At one point, Jenison has to replicate the elaborate design in a rug that lies draped over some furniture. The photographic detail evident in Vemeer's work forces Jenison to spend three excruciating days, painting each knot and tie in the surface of the rug. 

The camerawork is a wonder to behold. Did Teller spend the entire 130 days it took to paint the facsimile patiently filming over Jenison's shoulder? It's a marvel to watch Jenison's tiny brush doggedly at work. (Thanks to the editing, Jenison's brush is always daubed in just the right shade of paint—we don't see the times where the hue was off and a remix/retouch was needed). 

Even more marvelous are the time-lapse shots that record the progress as Tim's Vermeer slowly emerges across the canvas, gaining color and detail. At one point, the process is even depicted in motion—the camera panning slowly over the canvas as the incredibly detailed art unfurls like rich custard being poured over a white plate. 

With the viewer's mind primed to look for answers to mysteries, there is one nettlesome detail. Early in the painting process, we can see that the walls and furnishings of Vemeer's room all fully painted. The forms of the student and teacher are missing and still to be added. 

While this is the way an ordinary painter would likely proceed, it is inconsistent with Jenison's theory and his mechanical approach to recreating the masterpiece – by building it outward, millimeter by millimeter. 

Why paint parts of walls and furnishings that were not visible in the original painting? 

This is another mystery embedded in the film.