Time for some back story: in 2001, David Hockney (you know him) published a book called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which ruminated on the suspicion that some old masters had achieved such a haunting rendition of visible accuracy that it could not be just skill, or genius or taking enough naps.
It might be optical aids. It might be lenses. It might be something close to photography.
The cat was among the pigeons, and the pigeons were the majority of academic art historians. Some said that the upstart Hockney was suggesting Vermeer had cheated. Not at all, said Hockney; doing it with lenses would still have been so difficult. Anyway, Vermeer thought of the subject and how to achieve it. What else is art? Do you have to do it with your eyes shut?
Consider his picture The Music Lesson, also known as A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (a more winning title).
That’s the one Tim picked: Tim Jenison, an inventor and a tech company man from Texas; not a painter; not an art authority, but a man vulnerable to unlikely obsessions—and a man needs a hobby. He thought that Hockney was on to something, and he calculated that it might be possible to recreate whatever optics and mechanics Vermeer had employed.
The whole thing took the best part of ten years, which is the chief reason why the final result is Vermeer 34, Tim 1.
But Tim put the thing together, and as he began to redo A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, he mentioned the plan to an old friend, Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller).
“I’d like to see you try that,” said Penn.
So the idea for a movie took shape—they do those with lenses, too. Penn would produce, with Farley Ziegler (she had worked on Being John Malkovich), and Penn’s silent partner, Teller, would direct. This may be the medium’s first silent director.
So what is Tim’s Vermeer? Well, it has no car chases, no full frontal nudity and no severed heads. Nothing is perfect. But this is exactly the kind of movie you come to Telluride for, because you would never have expected it. It is a movie, and you won’t find fault with it: the brushwork is spiffy, the framing is top-of-the line, and the colors! But it’s one of those movies where you talk about the subject—the “it.” And this account of how Tim Jenison pursued his hobby, even to the point of showing it to an enthralled David Hockney, is a treat. Vermeer would have given it four stars.
Out of five.
Thomson’s biography appears on page 87.
TIM’S VERMEER | U.S., 2013, 78m |Director: Teller
Starring: David Hockney, Tim Jenison