Directed by: Teller Documentary Running Time: 1 hr 20 mins Rating: PG-13 Release Date: February 14, 2014
PLOT: Inventor Tim Jenison strives to replicate a painting by Johannes Vermeer, using optical technology that might have been lost in time.
WHO'S IT FOR? Everyone, and absolutely not just those who know art.
If 2013 was in particular a year of lone survivors, with sole characters persevering with only their minds and spirits through challenging conditions, Tim's Vermeer is a calming yet fitting coda to these tales. Though without the essential element of dramatic tension that carries films like All is Lost and Gravity through events that feature only one human being, the goal of Tim and his painting project, that of fully recreating a full Vermeer painting dot-for-dot and particle-by-particle, feels within this film to be no less ambitious than that of survival.
Tim's Vermeer begins with a humble theory from a title character whose brain is a fully functioning idea machine. While he has a history with invention, (slowing down a player piano to teach himself swing music, or building pipe organs), his latest "hobby" concerns that of Johannes Vermeer, and a question that has nagged art for years. Why is it that paintings by Vermeer look more realistic, or like a photograph, than the comparable work of his contemporaries? What magic eye did Vermeer have for things like color and light especially?
After futzing around with a camera obscura, Tim has a eureka moment (in a bathtub, nonetheless), that leads him closer to a dream of his: to replicate a Vermeer painting exactly, including the finest of visual details seen in his work "The Music Room." Like painting, he is unfamiliar with many of the crafts needed to create even the set for his recreation. But like the artist he becomes in the film, he decides to simply learn these traits. With this intriguing history lesson in the beginning, from this point Tim's Vermeer then takes off as an exhilarating marriage of the invention of technology with the creation of art, while showing the full endurance of the human mind.
Tim's Vermeer has an efficient weightlessness that is rare for any film, not just a documentary. There are challenges along Tim's artistic headfirst dive, of course, but the movie never achieves even the faintest levels of stress; this is a rare film without any real stakes. To completely minimize the words of Ivan Drago, "If he quits, he quits." There is nothing gambled by Tim for this dream, as he has earned the extended time and money from previous successful careers and fixations to pull together such an independent venture.
Teller's film doesn't suffer from a lack of dramatic immediacy. In this regard, a man's incredibly demanding venture (I will not spoil how many days this documentary covers) becomes wonderfully relaxed. And still, the inspiration that overflows from this story is addictive. With its streamlined running time of 80 minutes (which is good for the movie, but an understandable quandary for paying customers), the film's second half is made mostly of montage. It makes for compelling viewing, as we watch him try to recreate the painting in its most finite of details. Tim makes the easy joke of saying, "This project is a little like watching paint dry," but for the viewer dissatisfaction is nowhere to be seen.
In between sequences that show the slow transformation of his painting, there are brief confessionals from Tim that confirm his marvelous humility in spite of his brilliance. In these moments, Tim shares small patient observations about his project whilst entering a state of helplessness against his own passion. And yet, he continues. If hard work earning success is felt to be a myth, Tim's Vermeer is hard evidence about its truth. If I could, I'd somehow liquify this story (and its more cinematic counterpart, Jiro Dreams of Sushi) down to its finite chemicals, and then inject that mix into my brain everyday before taking on life. Maybe I should figure out how to go about doing that.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10