Imagine if independent film were more gripping than a summer blockbuster. Imagine a documentary that captures your imagination, instead of testing your resistance to sleep. They do exist.
Tim’s Vermeer is the most recent in a wave of documentaries on Art which immerse the viewer into a world where the skills, techniques, and language are only vaguely familiar to most, yet makes some aspect of that world accessible, interesting, and even exciting. British street artist Banksy gave us Exit Through The Gift Shop in 2010, a documentary revealing the tactics necessary to avoid detection or capture while vandalizing high-visibility, public structures. It’s outstanding. Director Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal (2009) dissects the attempt of the City of Philidelphia and other powerful interests to wrestle control of the largest collection of modern and post-impressionist art in the world (valued at over $25 billion) from the Barnes Foundation, and move it into tourist-friendly, downtown Philidelphia. The Steal is as compelling as Exit is unexpected.
Penn and Teller (yes, the Penn and Teller) collaborate with their friend, inventor Tim Jenison, to bring us Tim’s Vermeer, the story of Jensen’s attempt to discover the techniques Johannes Vermeer used to create photorealistic paintings over 350 years ago. As a film produced and directed by magicians, you’d expect a lot of flair, some tricks, and maybe even some CGI. There’s none. Well, there’s a little CGI, but for demonstration purposes only. On paper, it’s about as straightforward and dry as any doc out there. But tricks aren’t necessary when the material alone can dazzle. The journey is so bombastic, and the theories and discoveries so unexpected, the viewer finds himself caught up in a suspenseful mystery, with breathtaking revelations. There’s a genuine ‘ah ha’ moment later in the film – a moment where a scientific principle distinguishes which technique must be responsible for specific characteristics in Vermeer’s work. The linear storytelling format allows us to feel we’ve arrived there with Jenison the moment the discovery is made. It’s euphoric, and the best sort of emotional payoff, hardly expected in a documentary about brush strokes and pigments.
I can’t recommend this film highly enough. Yes, it’s a documentary. Yes, it’s about how to paint artwork in the Dutch Golden Age. And, yes, it’s only showing at the Spectrum. It’s also brilliant.
Copyright 2014 Sony Classics.