In the opening scene of the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, a San Antonio man named Tim Jenison talks about his goal of replicating a painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer, perhaps best known for “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” is renowned for creating works with such incredible textures and depth that his images are photorealistic—150 years before the invention of photography.
There are no records of Vermeer as an artist apprentice, nor any discernible sketches beneath his vivid images. Thus he became known for his mysterious ability to “paint with light.”
Jenison, looking nearly stricken as he describes his mission, admits that reproducing a Vermeer—an obsession that kept him awake at night—seemed impossible. “It’ll be pretty remarkable if I can,” he says. “Because I’m not a painter.”
Jenison is an inventor and compulsive tinkerer. He’s won Emmys for innovations such as the Video Toaster, an early-1990s gizmo that could edit and stream video. But during the 80-minute film—produced by Penn & Teller, with Teller directing—viewers see that Jenison is better described as a Renaissance man. He may have run some of his theories by art historians and sometimes asked others to help him with the nuts and bolts of the 1,825-day project.
To recreate Vermeer’s exact environment, however, as well as the tools he had access to 350 years ago, Jenison built rooms, lenses, and furniture himself, with everything carefully measured. He even traveled to Holland and learned Dutch. He learned how to grind paint. “If it were left up to me to make paint,” says narrator and illusionist Penn Jillette, “there would be no paint.”
Tim’s Vermeer is sprinkled with such humor, with the ingenious Jenison not above reacting to setbacks with a “Motherfucker!” or telling actor/artist Martin Mull that it took him about a half-hour to master the use of a paintbrush. “Oh, good for you,” Mull responds. “It took me 40 years.”
Jenison’s trial-and-error research resulted in him agreeing—to a point—with experts that Vermeer must have used a camera obscura. But when he tried to paint an image using only that technology, he failed. Eventually he added a couple of precisely positioned mirrors and successfully recreated a black-and-white portrait of his father. Emboldened, Jenison was ready to begin the big one: Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” currently residing out of tourists’ sight in Buckingham Palace. (Did he fly over to see it? Of course.)
When the real work started, Jenison’s attitude vacillated between “This is fun!” and “If we weren’t making a film, I’d find something else to do right now.” Once the historically correct setup was in place, Jenison spent the next 130 days working on his canvas, his impatience growing. “You know,” he says to the camera, “this project is a lot like watching paint dry.”
Jenison’s finished work is a result of not artistic ability, but of geometry and physics—and if you lean more toward the creative side, you might find his fastidiousness and talk of optical machines and such tedious. (Hell, even he did after a while.) It’s more likely that anyone with a hint of curiosity will be engrossed. When Jenison shows his piece to some Vermeer experts, one says, “I think it may disturb a lot of people.” Or fascinate them.
Like Father, Like Son Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son muses on themes such as nature versus nurture, warmth versus wealth. Specifically, it presents a nearly unheard-of situation: babies switched at birth. Here, the awful mistake isn’t discovered when the boys are still infants, with minimal psychological damage to their parents or themselves. These couples instead are informed of the error after raising whom they think are their sons for six years. Oops.
Koreeda, who also wrote the script, tells the story from the perspective of Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), a successful albeit workaholic architect, and Midori (Machiko Ono), his submissive but occasionally needling wife. In a well-appointed but sterile apartment, they raise Keita (Keita Ninomiya), a sweet, obedient boy who plays piano and doesn’t throw tantrums when he’s fed dinners healthier than chicken nuggets. Ryota isn’t thrilled with his son’s selfless personality, however. “These days,” he tells Midori, “kindness is a fault.” There’s a hint of past tensions between the couple, with Midori saying things such as “I’m sorry I was a quitter” and promising never to cook his noodles the wrong way again.
When Midori tells Ryota that the hospital called, he murmurs, “I hope it’s nothing messy.” It’s messy, all right, and so is the real father of Keita, Yudai (Riri Furanki), who arrives at the hospital meeting late and unkempt with his more put-together wife, Yukari (Yoko Maki). The families agree to spend some time together as they decide how to handle the mix-up.
The solemn Ryota is, frankly, horrified by Yudai, a shopkeeper who has other young children. He laughs as he roughhouses with them, lets them eat french fries, and seems more concerned with how much compensation they will get from the hospital instead of the fact that he’s raised a kid who’s not his own. Yudai gives Ryota a gentle sermon about how spending time with your children is more important than work. In return, Ryota is a condescending prick, suggesting he can buy off the other couple to ensure they go along with his preferred decision.
The rest of the film plays out like a more refined episode of Wife Swap. Some ideas spring from cultural norms, such as a grandmother’s theory about attracting “bad energy” with a marriage that many didn’t approve of, or blame heaped on the mothers—both by others and the moms themselves—for not recognizing that the infants handed to them weren’t their own. Midori in particular is burdened by shame. American women who see this film may want to shake some sense and spine into her.
Like Father, Like Son may sound akin to every wacky opposite-personalities comedy ever made, but the families’ differences are portrayed with dignity. Despite Ryota often coming across as a cold-hearted, pompous ass, he does have touching moments with Keita, and ultimately neither parenting style is judged. A subtle piano score runs throughout, bolstering the film’s tone of thought-provoking tenderness and delicacy, even during moments of sorrow. The wanna-squeeze-them charm of the boys doesn’t hurt in terms of pulling you into the story. This is a movie that you won’t forget once the credits roll. Be prepared for the inevitable contemplation—what would you do?—that will linger long after.