Creating genius: ‘Tim’s Vermeer’

Oscar-nominated documentary explores the debate between genius and technique

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Penn Jillette and Tim Jenison in “Tim’s Vermeer”; Rating: PG-13, Grade: A

Genius, we want to believe, is somehow conferred from on high. It is the product of unfathomable inspiration, unparalleled talent, a savant-like ability that confounds far less beautiful minds. What genius is not, though, is mere technique – no matter how carefully executed. Technique is suspect because it feels like a trick, which can be applied by anyone given the proper tools and circumstances.

Above all, art is technique elevated by – or better yet, infused with – genius.

“Tim’s Vermeer,” the Academy Award-nominated documentary feature from Teller, with production assistance and an onscreen appearance from his partner-in-crime Penn Jillette, explores the eternal curiosity of inventor Tim Jenison, the owner of a painting by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer, who takes it upon himself to uncover the truth about the master’s technical genius. Vermeer is known for producing stunningly rendered near-photo-realistic works at a time when such efforts would seemingly have been highly improbable – and he left behind no traces to explain his genius.

So, Jenison, with Teller and Jillette in tow, embarks on an experiment to not only reveal the secrets of Vermeer’s astonishing technique, but also reproduce a “Vermeer” of his own, using a similar approach and technology that would have been available to Vermeer during his lifetime. What Jenison proceeds to do is debunk all of that consensus thinking I laid out at the start of this piece, by assuming the process of developing such impeccable technique can and should be appreciated as something of a higher order. In effect, what Vermeer was able to accomplish would have been improbable in today’s world, even with the added benefit of more evolved technology and more precise instruments.

Jenison, an inventor with a background in visual technology, was able to apply modern approaches to the challenge, but he actually sought to strip away that edge. His goal was to tackle re-creating a Vermeer under the same conditions of the master’s day and age, which ultimately meant not only discovering the secret of the technique, but investing and re-producing the very detailed subject of one of Vermeer’s works, down to capturing the dimensions of every aspect of the composition.

The studied investigation, enlivened with an ingenuity almost gone from everyday life, cracks the case, and oddly enough, may remind a select few of another Penn Jillette documentary production, “The Aristocrats,” which drew informed attention to the ultimate insider’s joke – although “Tim’s Vermeer” masterfully arrives minus the lewd humor. There’s something in the comparison to “The Aristocrats” though.

Jillette displayed a similar obsessive bent to Jenison’s, surveying a collection of the greatest living comic talent available. The joke at the heart of that film is, in its own way, the means of separating true genius from the broad hijinks we’ve come to accept, and even label, as “genius.” I can remember at the time of that film’s release having a certain interest in staging a party where participants would be given the general set-up parameters and asked to create their own versions of this classic joke. I wanted to see if the technique of spewing lewd and lurid lines might produce anything close to the brilliance of say, Gilbert Gottfried’s post-9/11 rendition at Hugh Hefner’s roast or the sheer delirious profanity of Bob Saget’s glorious rant. It recalls the eternal question of whether or not a team of monkeys banging away on typewriters would ever be able to produce a Shakespearean work.

The reality though, in the case of “Tim’s Vermeer” is far more complicated, because Jenison, through his impeccable focus, proves to have a share of genius hardwired in him, which means what the film documents is genius recognizing itself. Looming ominously over the project is the notion this question of genius versus technical precision may not even matter. That is for audiences to decide.


Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at


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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at and visit his blog for additional film reviews at You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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