The movie Tim's Vermeer is the kind of mystery where you keep thinking you've found the answer only to realize the mystery just got deeper. Tim Jenison, a tech inventor with time and money to burn, tinkers extensively until he believes he's figured out the system for how Vermeer made those magically gleaming, precise paintings. (Vermeer left no record of how he worked except the paintings themselves.) To prove his theory, Jenison—a non-artist who has never made a painting—is going to re-create The Music Lesson himself.
Jenison is friends with the horrid Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller; Jillette narrates the movie, and Teller is behind the stilted camera. The movie succeeds in spite of them because Jenison's discovery is so relentlessly pesky—and mechanically, so mind-bogglingly simple. The secret-ingredient mechanism is just an adjustable round mirror barely larger than a compact, but it facilitates the astonishingly precise recording of the subtlest shades of color.
Re-creating The Music Lesson requires an obsessive exercise in reverse engineering. Inside a warehouse in San Antonio, Jenison precisely reconstructs the actual room from the painting in order to paint his replica. (A dead semiotician just got his wings.) Executing the painting takes months of tedious daubing of tiny dots of paint, which does not look like creativity, Jenison hunched over his setup, a veritable factory worker. By contrast, inventing and building the machine to make the art was so creative. There were trials and errors, failures and triumphs. There was devotion in the face of frustration in everything from determining the precise mirror shape to constructing exactly the right chair. "Was Vermeer a machine?" leading Vermeer scholar Philip Steadman says. "Maybe he was strong-minded enough to think, 'I'll become a machine.'" Suddenly The Music Lesson is a brother to Andy Warhol's paint-by-numbers paintings and Sol LeWitt's blueprints executed by other people (a huge one opens at the Olympic Sculpture Park March 15). And Vermeer is a sort of photographer.
The day I saw Tim's Vermeer, only one other reviewer was in the theater. Walking out, she said she couldn't wait to get to work. "I'm a painter, and I can't wait to try this technique!" MYOV: for your next party.