I’m not blessed with a natural sense of curiosity, so the question of how Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer painted his extraordinary masterpieces has never kept me up at night. Tim’s Vermeer (it’s on Starz) made me realize I should be kept up at night by the mysteries of the past. I love this movie. I love that I paid close attention through it all.
I love Tim Jenison’s biting humor. I love the mystery surrounding his theory. I love that even back then, there were people doing things behind the scenes to make the ordinary extraordinary. And I love that we will never know if it’s true.
I first screened it at the Hamptons Film Festival, with O’Toole, my podcasting partner in Screen Thoughts a few years ago.
She is an award-winning documentarian, and much, much, much smarter than I am. She also picks the movies we see because she is a deep-sea diver who spends time diving into things, while I am a water skier, flying over things on the surface level. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Anyway, in the interest of making sure you get the whole thing, I asked her to write the paragraph explaining Tim’s theory on Vermeer’s painting process. Here is it. After you read it, you will be glad I asked her. She is nothing if not articulate when it comes to complex issues. She went to Harvard. Just sayin’.
“Unlike those of his contemporaries, none of Vermeer’s sketchbooks have ever been found, nor have X-rays of Vermeer paintings revealed any pencil marks underneath the paint. Intrigued by this fact, Jenison reasoned that Vermeer must have used a camera obscura, the 17th-century equivalent of a camera, to obtain his hyper-realist look (as the film points out, camera obscura literally means darkroom). To test out his theory, and limiting himself to objects and pigments that would have existed in Vermeer’s day, Jenison positioned a mirror on a stick, placing the mirror at an angle to reflect the image to be painted onto his tablet. To match the color of the reflected image exactly, Jenison continually kept his eye on the edge of the mirror. Looking between the mirror and the reflected image he was painting, if the color he was using was too dark or too light, the edge of the mirror was visible to his eye. But once he mixed his colors to match exactly, the edge of the mirror seemed to disappear – his eye and the mirror functioning as a sort of photo-sensor. It was an incredibly painstaking paint-by-numbers process, but one that yielded uncanny results.”
Amazing right? But more amazing is Tim’s exploration of this question. His journey to see if he could replicate is told with honesty, humor, and intelligence. Perhaps best of all, it approaches an extremely difficult topic with a sense of comic perspective. No one is curing cancer. He was responding to his own internal boredom with a project he admits he would have abandoned had not the cameras been rolling. There were 2,500 hours of film to edit. A feat in itself.
There is a moment on film that I couldn’t leave behind. Tim’s daughter spends her week home from college posing for the painting. She has to be perfectly still. A contraption is strapped to her head that makes it look like she has just broken her neck and is in traction. She has a Diet Coke on the table, and the moment when she reaches for it and takes a drink is priceless. Coke should use it in a commercial. And, Tim’s comment that she couldn’t wait to return to school was priceless.
I have to mention Penn Jillette, who was the ‘Director’ of this movie. But he really wasn’t. He was the famous person whose backing allowed it to be made. Or so it seemed. I’m not a fan anyway, so having him associated with the film would have been a reason not to go, rather than a reason to pay attention.
I like stick-to-itiveness in a person. I do. I can’t wait to see a Vermeer at the Met the next time I am in New York City. I like to be smarter than I was a few hours ago. I like to know things. For those reasons alone, go back and watch Tim’s Vermeer. Become smarter. Ask yourself if Vermeer could secretly have been a paint-by-numbers kind of guy, hiding it because he knew it was a form of cheating? If the answer is yes, what else is possible?