In the details (we never quite see)

The other night, I had to jet from yoga to a film screening – one of our docs was kicking off a local festival, and I wanted to be sure someone from the company was on hand at least for the Q&A. I was a bit delayed, but did manage to meet the festival director, say hi to the doc subject who’d been able to attend.

After the chit chat, I was at a crossroads – head home and call it a night, or find a movie near by and stay out a bit later. Obviously, I opted for the latter. I clicked into Moviepass to see what I could see for free nearby, and landed on Tim’s Vermeer, a doc I didn’t know anything about except that it was getting good reviews, had been the subject of some chatter recently.

tims vermeerMy first indication that this wouldn’t exactly be your run-of-the-mill doc was the duo behind the film – Penn & Teller. Yep, the magic/variety show duo.

Quickly, the premise of the 80-minute film unfolds: Penn’s known Tim Jenison for years, and when Jenison decided to dive head-first into a quest to understand how Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer made his life-like masterpieces, Penn decided to tag along.

Jenison’s set-up is actually incredibly intriguing. To be sure, I had no idea there even was discussion around Vermeer’s style, let alone that the discussion was predicated on whether or not the artist used optics – lenses, mirrors, etc. – to create such bright, life-like images on canvases. Turns out, it’s a question at least among some in the art world, though one of the first disservices the documentary does for itself is limit its scope to Jenison and two others, an author and a historian. Never does director Tiller or narrator Penn take the camera outside the bubble Jenison creates to the broader art community, to educate the viewer on decades-long debate on the subject, or the urgent discussion around answering the questions Jenison posits.

Indeed, I can’t even be sure that debate or discussion is happening at all. If it is and the filmmakers chose not to show it, that’s just poor form. If it isn’t happening at all, suddenly the subject of Tim’s Vermeer becomes nothing more than a man with a lot of money who settles on an entirely obscure albeit interesting question no one was really asking in the first place, which makes it hard to care about the answer on many levels.

Jenison made his millions (or more?) in the early days of television technology, and he’s a skilled guy. As we watch him teach himself to make lenses, wood furniture and paint, it’s clear he’s so successful because of his willingness to try anything at all and see what he can bank on. And yet, as he constructs a custom studio to the exact specifications of Vermeer’s own, as he puts hours, days, months, years into determining how Vermeer did what he did, I couldn’t kick the question in the back of my mind: couldn’t all this time and money have been spent in ways that matter? Feeding the poor? Educating the illiterate?

Admittedly, I don’t know Jenison’s philanthropic endeavors – the film doesn’t divulge if all this investment in an experiment is after he’s dedicated similarly large sums of time and treasure to something like bringing clean water to Africa. Maybe that’s the case, and I’d be glad for it.

There’s also something missing in the film’s conclusion (spoilers ahead). As Jenison spends the better part of a year painting a replica of one of Vermeer’s better known masterpieces, the canvas does become a stunning reproduction of the original that hangs in Queen Elizabeth’s personal collection (which, sidenote: Jenison doesn’t get permission to see it, then miraculously does. Without any explanation from his documentarians, I can’t help but think the mogul bought his way into a private audience with the work. The lack of explanation risks the transparency that all good documentaries depend on. If I feel like you’re hiding something from me, you’ve lost me.).

But there’s no attempt at validating Jenison’s creation. Aside from allowing the previously-mentioned sidekicks to ooh and aah at Jenison’s efforts, there’s no third-party examination. No art museum, no restorer, no one to put the artwork under a microscope and compare brushstrokes, compare one against the other. Aren’t brushstrokes the fingerprint of a painter? Jenison’s final product may look very much like Vermeer’s from a distance, but unfortunately that’s as close as viewers are invited to come.