The artistic temperament as depicted in cinema takes on a certain metaphysical glint most of time, which has the paradoxical effect of both ascribing too much significance to the final product while simultaneously short-changing the hard work it takes to get there. It turns famous artists into vessels instead of the perpetrators of greatness, inspired by ephemeral sources for their creation And while Tim’s Vermeer, the new documentary from Teller (narrated by Penn), might look like a shot across the bow of artistic exceptionalism at first glance, it proves to be anything but – instead of postulating a world where anyone can make a Vermeer, you come away certain in the knowledge that very few people indeed are capable of such genius.
The premise is simple: Tim Jenison, a Texas-based inventor, turns his obsessive mindset towards the work of Johannes Vermeer. We have little to no record of Vermeer’s life or work habits. To this day, all we have is speculation as to how he managed such photo-realistic beauty by putting paint to canvas. There is little evidence Vermeer did much in the way of preparatory sketching to create these masterworks, only aiding the feeling that these portraits are divine transmissions. Jenison, a tinkerer at heart, determines that such perfect recreation could only have been accomplished with some sort of mechanical or optical assistance, and true to the spirit of the scientific formula goes about testing this hypothesis to prove its worth. He tasks himself (a man who has never picked up a paintbrush prior to this experience) with painting a perfect recreation of Vermeer’s original work through these technological means (essentially a curved mirror reflecting a real-time image over a canvas). It seems blasphemous, such an undertaking, but what it does in reality is show the obsessive level of detail required by great artists in order to create. Too few films focus on the process of creating, instead lionizing the endgame and in the end disrespecting the effort required to make such a thing possible. It is true that few people on Earth are capable of creating beauty like Vermeer, but this film goes a long way towards showing us that’s more a matter of effort than esoteric inspiration.
There’s only one problem this doc has, if one could consider it that, and that is its running time. It’s 80 minutes long, and takes some padding to get there. A few too many motion-lapse reminders of the drudgery involved in making so intricate a work run the risk of literally having us watch paint dry. But given that the other major release this weekend, Need for Speed, is a mediocre 90-minute movie that for some reason runs an interminable 130, I’m more than happy for the rare modern film that refuses to overstay its welcome. Tim’s Vermeer isn’t just an interesting story about a man’s attempt at something improbable – it reclaims artistic brilliance from otherworldly sources and credits the hard work required of genius.