I feel the best documentaries are the ones that manage to captivate you no matter the subject. So while I have very little familiarity with the art of Johannes Vermeer, the legendary Dutch artist whose method of painting is the center of Tim’s Vermeer, I much enjoyed seeing how Tim Jenison attempted to replicate the style of the famed painter. Helmed by Penn Jillette and Teller, the hosts of the TV series Bulls**t, Tim’s Vermeer is a fine introduction for viewers into the specific work of artistry.
The major reason why Tim’s Vermeer is so intriguing is because Tim Jennison is not an artist and has had zero experience in painting before. He is, though, a renowned computer technician and inventor who became interested by Vermeer after reading a book about him. Vermeer is known for his intricate paintings that look so real they could just as well be photos. Yet no one knows quite how Vermeer managed to paint with such detail. Tim theorizes that Vermeer may have used a camera obscura, a dark room that the artist sits in with a series of mirrors projecting the outside image, to have been able to make such striking pictures. After consulting with multiple Vermeer experts, Tim decides to remake Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” to see how the artist went about painting. This requires Tim to recreate the scenery of “The Music Lesson,” which necessitates trips to Buckingham Palace and the Netherlands, as well as lessons in carpentry and construction.
Penn and Teller keep the movie at a humorous beat to keep Tim’s Vermeer consistently entertaining, mostly through joking about Tim’s relativity in the artist field, though the picture is always completely respectful to the subject matter. What the two do very well is explain the concept of camera obsucra with simplicity. By doing so, Tim’s Vermeer isn’t a complex artists-only lecture but an open documentary for all viewers that has the right amount of details and accessibility.
This isn’t to say Tim’s Vermeer couldn’t be better. Particularly in Tim’s painting process the movie becomes a bit too slow and I often felt that Penn and Teller could have added some more tension or drama in the project. But Tim’s Vermeer is ultimately successful by making a tricky topic so enjoyable.