While the film focuses on the Johannes Vermeer painting whose secret Tim Jenison is trying to reveal, Tim himself was the primary artifact of our interest.
Tim is a successful entrepreneur, as communicated by the short introductory sequence. What the sequence (and indeed the whole film) grazes by is how Tim’s entrepreneurial success seems to come from the same type personality that might obsess over a dead Dutch painter.
Per the story, Tim parlayed his experience fixing broken electronic keyboards in his music band into a business fixing broken video games. And from this to a business writing software for the Commodore Amiga that now has a lineup of video production and visual imaging tools.
And then he made a lip-synching duck. You can see Tim tapping along attentively in the background. He is seemingly oblivious to how stupid this thing he probably sunk an inordinate amount of time into is because he is busy tracking the accuracy of the lip synching. Apparently you really can be successful and insane.
The Vermeer project is striking in the amount of work it required. Much, if not most of the work, seems to have gone into reconstructing the scene in the painting he was trying to replicate–not actually painting. Tim, while doing some woodwork that far surpasses anything I’ve dreamed of taking on myself, said that he took no joy in woodworking. He was doing it purely to get the objects right for his painting. “Dedication” sounds too weak a term for that.
Most of the documentary focuses on what everything Tim discovers tells us about Vermeer, but my interest is in what this tells us about Tim. My wife and I spent much of the viewing interrupting each other to exclaim how we’d never have the patience to do that, and we are both already in the upper half of the population for patience. Tim took on a high-effort, high-return, high-uncertainty, low-social-support project. People rarely do this. He seems to have done it several times.
It’s not only that Tim is patient and works hard. He works on what he wants to work on. It seems he always has. Music, games, flying, art. These are his interests, and you get the sense it doesn’t matter much to him if the work is paid or unpaid, embarrassing or sublime. Tim’s compass has no outside factors working on it. His story seems to be what happens when someone follows his ambition, wherever it may lead.