Tim’s Vermeer is every bit as enlightening as you’d expect a revisionist documentary about a 17th-century Dutch painter to be if it were made, as this one undeniably is, by libertarian magicians. Narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller, the film follows Tim Jenison, a ‘technologist’ consumed by the photorealistic quality of Johannes Vermeer’s work, as he attempts to annul any joy you’ve ever taken in art, culture, or life itself.
Convinced that Vermeer used some sort of optical mechanism to make his pictures, Jenison creates an anachronistic mechanism of his own and, having never painted before, sets out to replicate Vermeer’s ‘The Music Room’. He builds the furniture, reconstructs the room, and places his modelling daughter’s head in a head-clamp. In just five years, Jenison manages to reproduce the painting almost exactly. In doing so, he is somehow able to convince Philip Steadman and David Hockney, both of whom have previously written that Vermeer must have used an optical mechanism, that Vermeer must have used an optical mechanism. Whether he did or not is interesting for about five minutes; what is more profoundly exposed by Jenison’s obsessive devotion to the question is the limitations of a TED-talk positivism where to know means nothing more than to know how. For all the attention Jenison offers ‘The Music Room’, he can tell us very little about what it represents or portends. He says nothing about the allusion to Caravaggio he has inadvertently reproduced, or the role of women in 17th-century Holland, or the fundamental shift away from representation in painting following the invention of mechanical reproduction. He spent five long years with a single painting, and all he can tell us about it is that ‘the amount of detail makes a general impression on the viewer’. Unable to see the woods, Jenison regards the trees more closely. He thinks he’s an artist, but he’s not. He’s a loser.
This review originally appeared in the March issue of Totally Dublin.