02/19/2014 10:29 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

This is a wonderful documentary about obsession.

Penn and Teller have a friend named Tim, and Tim, after reading a book, decided to try to discover how a Dutch artist created art that effortlessly reaches across three centuries to create more art in mediums that didn't exist when Vermeer painted.

Most of us discovered Vermeer because a young female author stared at one of his paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and thought: who was she? So she used her imagination and wrote a wonderful novel about her. Which created a wonderful movie, based on the book, that introduced Vermeer to millions.

Tim Jenison, a successful American inventor, didn't just stare at a Vermeer painting as a fan; he studied Vermeer's paintings as an inventor and graphic artist and tried to imagine how something like The Music Lesson could be created in the 17th Century. How did Vermeer paint a scene that in today's terms seems almost Photo shopped? How did Vermeer paint what he did with the tools available to him then?

Tim's friends, the famous magicians, Penn and Teller, fascinated by their friend in general (Tim's a pretty fascinating fellow) decided to follow him with a camera as he followed his obsession with Johannes Vermeer from San Antonio to Amsterdam to Delft to San Antonio to Tim actually painting a famous Vermeer even though he had never painted anything other than a wall in his life.

Along the way, everyone associated with the making of the movie has fun with asides on Western culture, make observations on art and technology, pop in to discuss technique with the likes of David Hockney, and, without meaning to, film a love poem to an America which still creates people like Penn and Teller and Tim. A movie that reminds us all that cultural relativity is a slippery slope in the real world of what the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the unlocking of freedom and the concept of free will, the breaking of feudalism through free enterprise, and the rise of a middle class in 17th Century Delft hath created for all of us.

Tim reads a book about how Vermeer might have done it. He is intrigued. Can this be how Vermeer was able to duplicate so precisely a snapshot of a day in a room in his house in Delft in 1662? Did he paint from memory, or by eye from a staged tableau, or did he use technology to make 'art'? Penn, Teller, and the rest of us follow along as Tim works it all out in his mind, and, then in reality, by inventing tools from materials that were available at the time. He uses logic and guesses to arrive at a real breakthrough in figuring out what, to many, is not as much a mystery of how art is conceived, but of how art is created. Big issues of art and artifice are touched on, parallels are drawn between the art we enjoy today, much of which is technology based, and three hundred year old art that may have also been technology based.

Tim enthusiasm is infectious. Penn and Teller's amiable affection for Tim and his obsession with how Vermeer did it is infectious. Experts and artists are called on to bounce ideas off of and to ratify where Tim's thinking is going. There are amazing breakthroughs discovered seemingly in real time, on camera, as technology creates art and art is subsumed by technology. Light and lenses and color and a very steady hand become key parts of the story and we hang on each twist and turn as the day comes where Tim begins painting his masterpiece.

When the theory becomes a plausible reality and the real job of Vermeering begins, there is a slight bogging down as work becomes, well, work. The obsession becomes one with a famous character in Catch 22: Orr, Yossarrian's tent mate, the enigmatic, wonderful Orr. Who, if memory serves, takes apart and puts back together small electrical motors. Motors consisting of numerous tiny parts that cannot be misplaced or put together in the wrong order. Small screws and washers and bolts that need to be carefully gathered and even more carefully assembled with tools and fingers too large to deal with them efficiently. It is maddening to Yossarian and the reader, but Orr explains the cosmic truth behind it all: it is boring beyond belief to engage in such actions, that no one in their right mind would do it...but in a war of annihilation when the chances of being blown out of the sky during your next mission were quite high...anything, especially mind numbing boredom that can make your life seem longer is a blessing. Now where was the 1/16th inch bolt?

As Tim's hypothesis becomes a workable reality and he discovers that he can transcribe a painting exactly, Vermeer's Orr-ish obsession for mind numbingly exact detail becomes evident. Indeed, he did paint each one of those knots in the carpet laid across the table exactly. Exactly. Yes, indeed, did he paint every decorative seahorse on the virginal exactly. To do so, with Tim's discovery of how it might have been done, is an amazing end to an almost detective story.
A north facing room, the location of many of Vermeer's paintings, the light streaming through the window, musical instruments, carpets, jewelry, dresses, a girl, a man, a woman, fruit, everyday scenes, exact, exact as if we are in the room. We can hear the girl's quiet breathing as she tries to remain motionless in her pose. We can hear sounds from the street outside. We're in this room. We are part of this day. There are only thirty-five or so Vermeer's in existence. This might be the story of one of them.

Not photographs. Photography hadn't been invented. But, close. How did he do it?

Tim wanted to find out.

It's a wonderful movie. Vermeer, I think, would have like it.