When was the last time you were truly and utterly obsessed with something? Not interested, not fascinated, but obsessed?
Obsession is a powerful thing. It’s scary, all-consuming and it makes for compelling viewing. Whether it be Katniss Everdeen, Sherlock Holmes or Francis Underwood, the stories we love the most are those about heroes who aren’t just chasing a goal — they’re obsessed with it.
Tim’s Vermeer is the story of one man’s obsession. Not against a dystopian tyranny, an evil mastermind or the president of the United States, but about solving a mystery that has been plaguing the minds of artists and art historians for centuries.
The man is Tim Jenison, an award-winning inventor, technologist and self-made millionaire. The mystery — Johannes Vermeer.
Vermeer was a 17th century painter who specialized in photo-realistic painting. His work contained such elaborate detail, such realism, that theories abound that he must have been aided by some sort of optical mechanism that assisted him in achieving these incredible and unparalleled feats.
Who better than the most famous debunking duo in the world, Penn and Teller, to uncover the secret behind this renaissance-era phenomenon? The documentary is directed and produced by the notorious illusionists and it follows the journey of Jenison in a quest that spans over half a decade.
Jenison begins with an established theory that suggests Vermeer used a form of camera obscura to create his paintings. He develops this theory further by combining different types of curved mirrors and lenses to create an apparatus that allows any person with no background in painting to produce incredibly life-like and awe-inspiring paintings.
The next stage of his experiment was to recreate one of Vermeer’s classic paintings, “The Music Lesson.”
This is where the obsession comes in. To recreate the painting, Jenison has to simulate the same room that Vermeer used centuries ago. Most people would have hired a crew to build the room. Jenison is not most people: he recreates the room on his own.
To do so he teaches himself carpentry, glass-making, tile-laying — practically any skill you would need to construct a house — and spends the next 200 days building it from scratch with the modest help of an assistant. When it is built, Jenison begins to paint the scene with his invented apparatus. The amount of detail requires him to sit every day for hours and paint meticulously.
After 130 days of painting, Tim’s Vermeer is finally finished. Was it all worth it? Did he manage to solve a 300-year-old mystery?
The documentary takes 2,000 hours of footage and generates an 80-minute film that is fascinating and insightful. Penn Jillette provides humorous narration that adds colour to the film, while also serving as a guide for those of us with only a passing knowledge of art history.
What is truly fascinating in this film, regardless of your appreciation of fine art, is Jenison himself. It is his tenacious personality, his almost childlike excitement in the face of new challenges and his never ending ability and desire to learn new skills that make Tim’s Vermeer transcend its deceptively straight-forward premise.
Jenison says that he worries that the film will have all the excitement of “watching paint dry” but it is his inspiring obsession that keeps us enthralled. Often times you feel sorry for Jenison, a 60-year-old man spending day after day away from his family and home, hunched over a pad with a paintbrush in his hand. But before the film is over, your sympathy is replaced with reverence — even jealousy.
Tim’s Vermeer reminds us how much fun it is to forget about the world, find something that moves us, and simply obsess.
Tim’s Vermeer opens in theatres on Feb. 28 at Cinema du Parc.
Film website: http://www.sonyclassics.com/timsvermeer/