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Indie Snapshot: Tim’s Vermeer

by Ethan Alter January 31, 2014 5:50 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Tim’s Vermeer</i>

Art history comes alive in Tim's Vermeer, a wildly entertaining, appropriately thoughtful and genuinely inspiring non-fiction account of one man's attempt to do the (apparent) impossible: recreate one of the many masterworks to emerge from the brushstrokes of renowned Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer -- he of "Girl with the Pearl Earring" and "The Milkmaid" fame. Vermeer's particular genius was recreating life so vividly on his canvas that his paintings almost resemble photographs, with a clarity and level of detail that pull you into the frame. For centuries, art scholars and appreciators have contemplated how he achieved that remarkable effect. And now, one such amateur armchair enthusiast -- a computer engineer named Tim Jenison, who had no formal artistic training -- has not only come up with a compelling theory… he actually puts it into practice.

I realize that this brief recap doesn't exactly make Tim's Vermeer sound like a thrill ride of, say, Pacific Rim proportions. But it only takes about five minutes to completely fall under the film's spell, both due to the fascinating experiment it depicts and Tim's own jovial, self-depreciating presence, which undercuts any sense that this is all just a vanity project orchestrated by his good pal, magician and professional loudmouth Penn Jillette. Penn himself appears sparingly in the movie as a talking head, while his silent partner Teller plops down in the director's chair. But this isn't one of their Bullshit!-type sketches where they aggressively challenge commonly-held beliefs in the interest of exposing "truth." Instead, it's a film about the process of creativity, one that shows just how closely art and science are often intertwined. I'm loath to reveal the exact details of how Tim's theory about Vermeer's methods functions, because one of the joys of the movie is observing how he applies his own scientific background to a practice that some assume is divorced from that line of thinking. Equally joyous is watching his hypothesis being proven apparently correct as his recreation of Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" takes shape before his and our eyes. Through the process is painstaking -- to the point where Tim openly contemplates abandoning the project -- he emerges with something remarkable to show for it.

And that's why I don't hesitate to describe Tim's Vermeer as "inspiring," a word that normally conjures up images of torturous message movies peddling manipulative uplift. Well-aware of the great story he's been handed, Teller wisely doesn't oversell it, instead clearly and cleanly documenting every step of his subject's journey with plenty of context, but no distractions. Tim's experience speaks to anyone who has ever casually adopted a hobby only to have it become an intense passion or a person standing a crossroads in their lives who makes the choice to try something new. Whether or not he's cracked the elusive secret of Vermeer's method (and the film essentially states that he has without any argument to the contrary, which is a bit of an oversight, to be honest) what matters more is that he had a moment of inspiration, acted upon it and, most of all, saw it through to completion. He may not be a trained painter, but by the end of the movie, it's hard not to think of Tim Jenison as an artist.

Considerably less inspiring, but a decent time-killer in its own way is Swerve, an Aussie noir released in its native country in 2011 and venturing stateside now that some of its actors (including Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke and Revolution's David Lyons) are getting more work over here. After stumbling upon a traffic accident just outside of a small Outback town, Colin (Lyons) escorts the sole survivor -- the gorgeous Jina (Emma Booth) -- back home to her husband, Frank (Clarke). Before you can say Double Indemnity, Jina has seduced Colin into repeating the get-rich-and-get-out-town-quick scheme that caused her accident in the first place, one that involves transporting a sizable lump sum of money away from her hubby. From a narrative standpoint, there's not much in the way of invention here and the film doesn't have the atmosphere of dread that suffuses every frame of the cult Australian classic Wake in Fright, which feels like a partial influence here. But it goes through the motions well enough and Clarke is a solid heavy while Booth cuts a fine figure as the femme fatale. It's just good enough to not feel like you've been robbed of 90 minutes.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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