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updated: 2/13/2014 11:37 AM

'Vermeer' doc chronicles painter's obsession

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  • Tim Jenison investigates a master painter's work in the documentary "Tim's Vermeer."

    Tim Jenison investigates a master painter's work in the documentary "Tim's Vermeer."
    Photo courtesy of Tim Jenison

  • Video: "Tim's Vermeer" trailer


The documentary "Tim's Vermeer" chronicles one man's obsession. Sheer, unbridled, unstoppable obsession, no different from in Werner Herzog's 1982 classic "Fitzcarraldo" where the German filmmaker insisted on physically transporting a 320-ton steamship over a Peruvian mountain without the aid of special effects. No matter what the cost.

Here, Teller (half of the magic act Penn & Teller) details wealthy inventor Tim Jenison's obsession to prove that 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used an early form of photography -- the camera obscura -- to achieve the photo-realistic qualities of his canvas masterpieces. No matter what the cost.

Jenison turns out to be a nutty professor of sorts, a genius whose inventions have given him enough wealth to faithfully recreate the scene in Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" down to the handmade furniture and fabric designs, then replicate the painting itself, using 17th-century handmade photo technology, despite that he's never painted a picture of anything before.

According to Jenison's theory, Vermeer achieved his photo-realistic paintings by projecting photographic images onto a canvas, then painting over them in exact detail. (This theory had been proposed by others, but none with the financial resources and time to prove it.)

"Tim's Vermeer" is narrated by the silent Teller's talking partner Penn Jillette, who supplies the glib and energetic narrative that glues the pieces of this film together.

At one point in his 1,825-day project, Jenison jokes about watching paint dry, but that's an apt description for what happens to "Tim's Vermeer" in the last 20 minutes of its short 80-minute running time.

We watch paint dry as Teller's film illustrates the length and tediousness of Jenison's magnificent obsession, one that, as Jillette cheerfully points out, turns Vermeer's "unfathomable genius" into "a fathomable genius."

"Tim's Vermeer" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago, the Evanston CineArts 6 and the Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Rated PG-13 for language. 80 minutes. ★ ★ ★

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