Documentaries are easily, in my opinion, one of the trickiest forms of entertainment to create. Anyone who’s ever been in a science or history class knows that documentaries can be painstakingly boring and uninteresting. There’s a balance that must be met; on the one hand, the filmmakers need to deliver the message and facts they have worked so hard to find out during their journey, but on the other it’s also necessary to present them in a way where people will not fall asleep trying to absorb said messages and facts. Documentary filmmakers, like all other makers of entertainment, normally find the balance through practice, so when walking into the screening of Tim’s Vermeer I was skeptical of first-timers Penn and Teller. However, leaving the theatre I found myself completely wrong and very glad to be.
A documentary directed by Teller, one half of the popular American illusionist team Penn & Teller, Tim’s Vermeer follows the story of Texas inventor Tim Jenison and his quest to solve one of art’s greatest mysteries: How did Johannes Vermeer manage to paint such realistic paintings without the use of photography? After his invention of a device that could hold the answer to that question, Jenison sets out on a decade long journey to test his theory by attempting to replicate one of Vermeer’s classics.
While some documentaries can struggle with pace, often hitting viewers over the head with messages and scientific facts, subsequently making them uninterested, Tim’s Vermeer does not struggle from a pacing issue in the slightest. Due to its inherently interesting premise and unbelievable charm, the film powers through its 80-minute runtime, keeping audiences absolutely glued to the screen. The structure allows for buildup to a final act that, while mostly a man just attempting to paint a picture that’s been done before, gives the audience some genuine tension as to how the whole experiment will play out. The filmmakers allow audiences to be sucked in immediately and never let them go, giving viewers an intriguing and light experience that also doesn’t shy away from presenting some themes and questions that will be rattling around their head for hours after.
Where Tim’s Vermeer truly succeeds is through the questions it raises about our perception of art, the combination of science and art, and obsession. Tim Jenison’s obsession with this painter and his process spanned 8 years, in which the man traveled to many countries all over the world, as well as months spent attempting to prove his hypothesis true. Through him, the filmmakers provide a commentary on obsession and how much of a person’s will can be tested before his or her obsession breaks. Due to Jenison’s belief that Vermeer used a scientific tool (much like the one he built for himself), the center of the entire premise bases itself on the view of art as a medium for collaboration between artistic expression and scientific exploration in order to produce new modes of creating. This view of science and art mixing is not a popular one for some, but Tim’s Vermeer presents the issue in a way that not only shows its merit but also speculates its usefulness in the part.
Tim’s Vermeer is a fast-paced, highly enjoyable documentary with plenty of intrigue and charm. Penn and Teller bring this Texas inventor’s quest to the big screen, giving the audience a story they can latch onto and providing questions about the past and future for art and how obsession can drive someone to his or her breaking point. In a world full of uninteresting or overly preachy documentaries, this one is a prime example of one that gets it right.
Review by Nick Franco