Thursday, February 27, 2014

Tim's Vermeer - Movie Review

The essential measure of any documentary film is whether its core subject is interesting - or, if broken down a stage further, is it both informative and entertaining?
Tim's Vermeer broadly speaking meets with success on both parameters.
Of course you can't please everyone, and not everyone will be interested in inventor Tim Jenison's obsessive quest to duplicate a work of Johannes Vermeer by mechanical means using only the materials available to the Dutch Master himself. The description of the film falls short of piquing my interest, despite having personally experienced a moment of profound artistic reverie seeing one of Vermeer's works (the uncharacteristic exterior The Little Street)at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. However, put the film in the hands of Penn & Teller (the latter directs while the former acts as narrator), and now I'm curious.
Is it informative? Certainly. I learned about Vermeer of course, but really what Tim's Vermeer offers is a fairly geeky (the good brand of geeky) deconstruction of the science and the obsession behind Jenison's quest.
Entertaining? Usually. However this is ultimately where the film fails when placed against the "is it interesting?" yardstick. For the majority of its run time the film finds ways to amuse, but relatively late in the game it fails in what strikes me as a rather obvious and one would think thusly-avoidable manner. From early on it is demonstrated that Jenison's technique - which is convincingly proposed as being a likely variation on that which Vermeer used - is slow and laborious. When it finally comes time for Jension to put brush to canvas and paint "Tim's Vermeer" (he selects The Music Lesson) in the last third of the film, the entirely wrong choice is made. Teller plays too much upon the tedium. Far too many a book, play and film has foundered on the rocks of trying to portray boredom effectively in an engaging manner, andTim's Vermeer sadly sails with them. Fortunately the rest of the film has much to intrigue, and a day later I am looking past its other faults to the questions it raises about the boundaries between art and science, inspiration and invention.
The film was apparently considered for an Oscar nomination and it can be easily seen both how it was in contention for nomination - it is thought provoking - and how it dropped the ball and came up short.
The failures ultimately revolve around Tim Jenison, although it wouldn't be fair to say they are his fault. Tim is clearly a brilliant guy - any dispute of this is laid to rest with his introductory biography. And he isn't ASD-alienating, Sheldon-Cooper-like brilliant.... at least not much.  He is socially grounded, makes witty and accessible quips, and for the most part is relatable as a person. But that isn't quite the same as being an ideal central figure for a documentary. The catch of course is that without him - it is after all his brilliant insight that drives the entire film. Without him the film would be at least a tad fraudulent, and more likely, non-existent.
Jenison's brilliance manifests in the depth and detail his speech and as a result he needs editing, and no foresight was put into this fact when shooting his interview segments, resulting in a distracting number of jump cuts.
Also though Jenison is clearly moved by the completion of his goal - and rightfully so, it is an amazing feat and a commendable proof of concept - I felt nothing myself. Nothing about him evoked a feeling of empathy from me to him (and Jodie mocks me regularly about how easily moved I am) ...which seems like a pretty critical flaw for the end of the film.
But put my criticism aside, Tim's Vermeer has more to be said in its favour than against it.  It gets my recommendation for anyone with an interest in either art, science or Penn & Teller.... or even those relatively few folk who know already how Tim Jenison changed the world before he ever picked up a paint brush.