Tim’s Vermeer image Tim’s Vermeer imageTim’s Vermeer image

April 04 — April 10

Tim’s Vermeer

Rated PG-13 for profanity; 80 minutes.

Link to film's website

Fri 5:30 7:15
Sun (No Saturday Showing) 2:00 5:00 7:00
Mon-Thurs 5:30

Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.

Geekery comes in many forms, and with the technological resources of the Internet Age, the 21st century is an unprecedented age for geeks to pursue their singular obsessions. We tend to think of geeks scrutinizing icons (and collecting merchandise) of pop culture—Star Trek, Dr. Who, video games, role-playing games, graphic novels, James Bond, etc. But there are “geeks” whose interests are more obscure, perhaps even “highbrow.” Geeks have undergone an image makeover in recent decades: they aren’t all seen as antisocial, pathetic misfits; many geeks are highly educated, serious, fascinating people whose enthusiasm is infectious even when we don’t necessarily understand what they’re talking about. Wealthy inventor Tim Jenison is such a person. He doesn’t fit the old stereotype of a “geek” but he is one. His particular obsession is Johannes Vermeer, one of the greatest Dutch Masters of the 17th century. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is perhaps Vermeer’s most well-known painting, but his style is unmistakable: striking use of color (lapis lazuli and ultramarine were his favorite pigments), dramatic lighting effects, powerful use of darkness and shadow, and an almost uncanny photorealism. His subjects tended to be interior scenes of domestic life, populated by all classes of people—The Milkmaid, The Astronomer, and Woman with a Water Jug are examples of his work. Like many of the great artists (painters, novelists, poets) of antiquity, Vermeer’s career contains some mysteries that have maddened scholars: there is no clear record of any apprenticeship, for instance. (Surely a freakish talent like Vermeer’s didn’t spring up out of nowhere, without any training?). Vermeer’s methods have also been subject to much speculation, especially since few preliminary sketches or tracings of his finished works have been positively identified. When we encounter an artist so remarkable, the first reaction is awe; the second is a sort of envy mixed with genuine scientific interest—a desire to know how the artist did it. Shakespeare is such a figure; his oeuvre is so amazing that the “Shakespeare didn’t really write all his plays, someone else did” argument still has some cachet even today. There’s a feeling of disbelief, a need to unlock the “magic” behind the Art. Little wonder, then, that the central idea behind the documentary Tim’s Vermeer would interest co-producer Penn Jillette, the irreverent magician-comedian and myth-debunker known as the talkative half of Penn & Teller. Art is a little like magic, and ordinary folk like to know the “secrets.”  Millionaire Tim Jenison isn’t exactly “ordinary folk” but he’s got an ordinary likeability and inquisitive mind that makes him actually relatable, though few of us have the money to pursue our obsessions to the point Jenison does his. But maybe we would if we could. The film follows Jenison as he tries to recreate Vermeer’s masterpiece The Music Lesson using mechanical methods that some art critics have controversially suggested that Vermeer used—to explain how he obtained such incredibly realistic detail. Artist David Hockney and scholar Philip Steadman are two proponents of the theory that Vermeer and other Dutch Masters used optical equipment—a camera obscura with special mirrors—to produce images which they then traced in paint in order to create those perfect proportions, shading, and colors. There are two potential pitfalls of the film: first, Jenison’s wealth might make his obsessive quest look like the folly of a man with too much money (unlike many amateur art scholars, Jenison can research Vermeer by travelling to the artist’s home town of Delft in the Netherlands, as well as create an exact replica of the room featured in The Music Lesson while studying that work); second, Jenison’s urge to see how Vermeer “did it” could seem like the jealous ambition of a nobody trying to devalue the genius of a real artist. Tim’s Vermeer escapes both pitfalls in large part because Jenison is a fascinating study of geeky obsession—he’s utterly serious in his interest so moviegoers are riveted to his search even if we have no interest in painting. Diehard geeks can lure outsiders into their enthusiasms through an oddball mixture of passion, arcane knowledge, and child-like thrill of discovery. We may not be as invested in this adventure as Jenison, but the film doesn’t really hinge on whether he proves or disproves the “optical equipment” theory. It’s really a movie about how Art grips us—Vermeer is not diminished in the least; he’s elevated by the film’s inquiry. Tim’s Vermeer becomes a study of Jenison, who represents the urge of the “disciple” to follow an artistic “master”—even going so far as copying the master’s work, following in his footsteps as it were. The pursuit takes an emotional toll on Jenison, and this gives the film its heart, as well as substance for intriguing questions about how far is too far when someone worships an artist? Jenison himself is not without achievement: he’s a self-made man, earning a fortune by creating several revolutionary graphics technologies. We may not often think of wealthy, accomplished people like Jenison idolizing other people, but they do. With the same determination, inventiveness, and keen mind that made him wealthy, Jenison has embarked on a six-year journey into the heart of artistic creation—and possibly madness. Potentially dark stuff, but assisted by Jillette’s wry narration and moments of offbeat humor—as when Jenison’s daughter puts her head into a vise for the sake of art—Tim’s Vermeer is very entertaining, even when it probes heavy questions like: Is Art just a matter of technical proficiency, or is it something more, something we can’t measure? Like the best magicians, Penn Jillette is interested in presentation, not just the mechanics of the “trick”—and Tim’s Vermeer is a highly engaging, provocative film about the true nature of Art that even those who are not aficionados of painting can appreciate.

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