I didn’t think there’d ever be a review where I mentioned “watching paint dry” and it would be a positive thing. Yet that’s exactly what we got here; a documentary that’s a character study on Tim Jenison, who is a Texas-based inventor and millionaire. Oh, he’s also good friends with Penn & Teller. They were smart enough to realize that – this would be an interesting character to make a documentary on. Boy were they right.
Tim has never painted in his life, but when he wants to learn how to do something, he’s pretty good at it. For example, he was fixing a player piano as a child. He figured if he just slowed down the rolls of Fats Waller enough, he could learn how to play the right keys. That’s how he taught himself to play piano.
He’s a huge fan of the art work of Johannes Vermeer, although it’s not just for the reasons other art fans might be. As somebody who worked with computer graphics and has won Emmy’s and awards for his creations, he finds it odd how well Vermeer used shadows. He figures this is so complex, he must’ve used a camera obscura, which before cameras, was a way of using mirrors and lenses to sort of cheat. You could be painting your subject and immediately know what you were doing wrong.
A book had been written about Vermeer possibly using this technique and art scholars had argued the point. Tim created a miniature version of one and used it to create a portrait of his father-in-law. He had never painted before, and what we saw looked amazing. This gets him to attempt to paint a Vermeer. He figures it would be fun to attempt and prove the theory. Now, that might not sound so interesting. Yet here’s a guy that has the money and time, to build a room exactly like one Vermeer painted in. He had walls torn down and built in a San Antonio warehouse, stained glass windows put in, and he even learned to make the furniture and blankets to recreate “The Music Lesson.”
I won’t even begin to tell you what he had to do to get a viewing of that painting that wasn’t from an art book. I’ll give you a hint, though. It’s hanging in BuckinghamPalace, and you can’t just knock on the door and say, “Can I come in and check out the Vermeer y’all got hanging in the den?”
The original was painted in 1663, and nobody is sure how long it took or even much about Vermeer and how he worked. The Dutch painter wasn’t very prolific. But we get to spend the next 80 minutes watching how Tim spent 2,000 days recreating this. That’s not all just painting. Tim even wanted to grind pigments to make his own paint, the way Vermeer had. As Penn Jillette says in his narration, “He couldn’t just head over to the paint store and buy the colors he needed.”
Maybe you only knew a few of Vermeer’s paintings (I was only familiar with “Woman with a Pearl Necklace”).
This movie is great for those of us that didn’t pay attention in all our classes. We get a little science, history, and art all rolled into one.
Realizing Vermeer painted using these techniques shouldn’t lessen what art scholars feel about his work. If fans of The Doors found out Jim Morrison used a line from a Lord Byron poem, or covered a song from a German opera that many just assume they wrote (Alabama Song/Whisky Bar), they’d probably still be fans of the group.
For a couple of guys that like to debunk things on their show Bulls**t, this documentary was the perfect vehicle for Penn & Teller. I just wish they would’ve spent a few minutes showing us more from Tim Jenison’s personal life. We briefly see a daughter posing for the painting, but know nothing about his relationships or what his wife/girlfriend or other family members, might think of how obsessed he has gotten with Vermeer.
At least he didn’t go down the Howard Hughes route and lock himself in a room collecting finger nails and urine in jars. He locked himself in a room, and almost died from carbon monoxide poisoning. And how did the painting turn out in the end? Well, go see this during it’s week long run in Hillcrest to find out.
It gets 4 stars out of 5.