'This project is a lot like watching paint dry," software inventor Tim Jenison cracks at one point in the documentary Tim's Vermeer. In fact, that's exactly what it's like - in the most fascinating, illuminating ways.
Long interested in the places where technology and art converge, and a man who can afford the luxury of working on pet projects - even if they take years and require the construction of a 17th-century Dutch drawing room, replete with tapestry, marble tiles, and gilt-stenciled virginal - Jenison was out to prove that the photorealistic style of the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer was the result of optical devices.
A century and a half before the invention of photography, Vermeer, Jenison believes, was using lenses, mirrors, and projected images to capture light and color in precise and intricate ways.
And so Jenison, anything but an artist himself, bought oil paints and brushes and built a contraption with materials that would have been available to Vermeer back in Delft. Taking Vermeer's beautiful The Music Lesson (the original hangs in Buckingham Palace), Jenison built an exact replica of the room depicted in the painting in his Texas warehouse.
And off he went - very, very slowly.
Narrated by the illusionist Penn Jillette and directed by his less gabby partner in prestidigitation, Teller, Tim's Vermeer is more than just a diverting excursion into art history, or art theory. Through Jenison's obsession, through the insights of artist David Hockney (who authored a book on the not-so-old techniques of the Old Masters), and with observations and assists from academics, and the comedian and painter Martin Mull, the film examines issues that remain hugely relevant today.
How are art and science linked? Where does creativity end and replication begin? Does technology facilitate the artistic process, or hinder it? And does any of that really matter? Tim's Vermeer is film as forensics, bringing math and science to bear to solve an art-world mystery.
Tim's Vermeer *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Teller. With Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull, and David Hockney. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse