Judge Gordon Sullivan is an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
A Penn & Teller Film
Generally, we're taught history as an upward curve of progress, getting closer and closer to technological mastery and human happiness. There's something to this idea—we certainly live longer now than we have ever in the history of the species, and the average lot of the average person seems better as far as we can tell (at least in developed countries). Sure, there was the occasional moment of back-sliding like the "Dark Ages," but overall we're told we're getting better and better. And yet, there are still mysteries about our forbearers. The pyramids and Stonehenge are the most obvious, but there are other, less monumental mysteries to be found in history. One of them is the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, which seem to showcase an attention to detail and color that either demonstrates a one-of-a-kind genius, or an artist working with a set of tools that remain unrecorded.
David Hockney is perhaps the most famous artist advocating for the theory that many of the paintings we know of as classic from the last 400 years were in fact produced using lenses and mirrors. Inventor Tim Jenison took Hockney at his word, spending 11 years both perfecting an optical device to give him the "Vermeer effect" and recreating a scene from a Vermeer painting to show that it could have been done that way. It just so happens that Jenison is friends with the famous magician/presenter/personality Penn Jillette, and when Penn heard about Tim's obsession he decided to make a film about it. Tim's Vermeer is the wonderful product that's partly a document of one man's obsession, partly an investigation into an historical mystery, and partly a celebration of human invention.
Facts of the Case
Tim's Vermeer starts in the middle. By the time that Penn Jillette found out about his friend's obsession with Vermeer, Tim had already sunk several years into thinking about how to achieve Vermeer's unique blend of accurate colors, penetrating detail, and luminous canvases. Penn picks up the threads, giving us a brief portrait of Tim's life pre-Vermeer, and then we follow along as Tim discards several theories (mostly the use of a camera obscura) before settling on his combination of lens-plus-mirror. Though he's fairly convinced that his technique will yield appropriate results (and art expert Philip Steadman agrees), Tim decides the only way to know is to test his apparatus. The bulk of the film is taken up with Tim's project to build an exact replica of the room that Vermeer painted for "The Music Room." Once construction is complete, Tim sets out paint the scene in front of him. Will he achieve the look of Johannes Vermeer?
There's a version of Tim's Vermeer that sounds terribly boring. Who wants to watch a guy recreate a 400 year old painting? The genius of the film, though, is precisely that it makes us care. Most people who watch will be at least minimally familiar with Vermeer's work—most famously "The Girl with the Pearl Earring." It doesn't take long for the film to establish that the Vermeer we're all familiar with is a very strange painter, one with almost photorealistic detail but over a century before we had photography. The film does an excellent job of making a pretty standard, familiar painter into a strange figure of mystery. That's the first prong of the film's attack.
The second prong is Tim Jenison. He's a multi-award-winning inventor working in video production/software. On the one hand he's a mad genius with money to spend, who can indulge 11 years trotting the globe looking at Vermeers, visiting his locations, and thinking about his effects. On the other hand, he's just an ordinary guy, and the film makes him someone we can all relate to. If you've ever been curious, ever wondered how something was done, you share a lot in common with Tim—the major difference is that he has the money and time to indulge his obsessions. Tim's Vermeer rides the fine line between showing us all the work (over 100 days in the painting alone) that Tim is capable of without also painting him as an obsessed freak who needs to put down the paintbrushes and get a better hobby.
Essentially the film works on just about every level. It's an interesting document of a particular process—the creation of the optical device, the making of the room in painstaking detail, the painting process itself—as well as a portrait of one man's invention and willingness to prove a theory. The fact that it also sheds light on a well-regarded master painter's working methods is a delightful bonus. Moreover, the film doesn't indulge in reality-TV inspired attempts to make the process more "dramatic" than it already is. The title of the film pretty much gives away Tim's success, and though there are definite speed bumps on the path to achieve his painting, nothing feels unnecessarily "heightened" with manufactured drama.
Tim's Vermeer also gets a strong Blu-ray release. The film's 1.78:1/1080p AVC encoded transfer is generally solid. The source is digital video, so overall there's a flat sheen to the production. Detail is usually pretty strong, especially in close-ups on the details of Tim's brushwork. Colors are appropriately saturated, though they don't "pop" in the way that modern HD productions from Hollywood do. There's also some noise and compression artefacting here and there. It's a transfer that works for the material, but isn't as mind-blowing as Tim's efforts could sustain. The DTS-HD 5.1 track aims slightly lower so it has no trouble hitting the mark. Dialogue is always clean and clear, with the film's excellent score doing a lot to fill out the soundstage. Directionality isn't a huge issue, but it's easy to hear what's important with this track.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Tim, Penn, Teller, and producer Farley Zeigler. They spend much of the time expanding on what we see in the film, filling in details that are glossed over. Everyone returns for a Q&A from the Toronto International Film Festival where other stories come out as well. Then we get a host of deleted/extended/alternate scenes. These include everything from a tirade against Queen Elizabeth II (who initially refused Tim's request to view "The Music Room," which she owns) to an introduction focused more on Penn and Teller. The extended bits luckily include more material from Hockney, who is a delightfully irascible figure. The film's theatrical trailer is included, as is a DVD copy of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If we take Tim's Vermeer as a document of Tim Jenison's attempt to recreate a Vermeer, then it satisfies completely. If, however, we think about the film as an attempt to answer the question of how Vermeer painted, then the film is slightly disappointing. Though Penn Jillette proclaims himself a skeptic, we hear almost nothing from those who think that the use of optics can't explain Vemeer's methods. This absence is most keenly felt once Tim's painting is finished. He presents it beautifully to art historian Philip Steadman and artist David Hockney, who both oooh and ahhh over it appreciatively. If this scene were followed by an optics-denier's encounter with the painting the film would have been even more dramatic and convincing. Sadly, we don't get that moment.
The Monuments Men makes a clear case that one of the reasons wars can be worth fighting for is that we have a shared culture, and that culture includes paintings. It follows from this that any film that helps us get closer to that common culture, that illuminates our shared human interests is also worthwhile. Tim's Vermeer is one such film. It takes a centuries old painting and imbues it with mystery, obsession, and wit. Even if it clarifies how the painting was achieved, the film adds to our understanding of Vermeer's genius. Couple that with an excellent Blu-ray release and you've got a winner that's well worth a purchase.
It doesn't take Vermeer's eye to see that Tim's Vermeer is not guilty.
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