Image: Documentary Now! (IFC)
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At this point, it’s hard not to sound redundant when writing about Documentary Now!, because the show keeps on playing to its own strengths, keeps proving time and again that it’s one of the most innovative shows on television. It shouldn’t work so well, and yet it does...over and over. Episodes, of course, are distinct from one another thanks to a mix of subjects and styles and tones. But every time I think now this is the epitome of this show, Documentary Now! somehow tops its own peak. So while there’s a chance I could say this again about another episode in the future—maybe even within this season—I’m still going to make a bold statement: “Waiting For The Artist” is Documentary Now! at its absolute finest. It’s yet another argument in favor of this show’s improbable efficacy and brilliance. It might even become as culturally significant as the original work it parodies.

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That original work is the 2012 art documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, which follows legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic as she pieces together her massive, ambitious retrospective for the MoMA. First of all, the Documentary Now! team nabs Cate Blanchett to play its Marina stand-in, Izabella Barta, a sharply executed impression that yet still somehow stands on its own. That bears repeating: Cate Blanchett stars in this episode of Documentary Now!. The show has been landing increasingly impressive guest stars, perhaps easier to do now that we’re three seasons in and the show has time and again proven its excellence (although Helen Mirren opening every episode is still somewhat unbelievable).

The episode gets a lot of mileage out of Blanchett doing absurd things with her body, and Blanchett fully commits in a way that genuinely evokes Abramovic, who pushed her body to its physical limits for the sake of her art. Blanchett brings that same kind of full-bodied presence and physical strain to her acting here. She’s arresting, in complete control, an artist in her own right. And she nails some of the more impression-leaning aspects of her performance, too, like Abramovic’s somewhat unsettling laugh and the way she carries herself.

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“Waiting For The Artist” is easily one of the funniest episodes Documentary Now! has ever done, and it’d be easy to say that performance art is simply rife with comedic potential. That’s certainly true, but “Waiting For The Artist” definitely does not amount to a half hour of making obvious jokes about performance art. Really, it’s not even that exaggerated in its depictions and in some ways is even more toned-down than the original (there is, for example, considerably less nudity here). Documentary Now! transforms Abramovic’s works ever so slightly, and some shots rather directly reference the original, as with a sequence of a bunch of passerby in Times Square marveling, a little confused, at a massive screen displaying Izabella’s work.

The artist retreat Izabella hosts (along with the episode’s twist ending) involve the most heightening for comedic effect. While in the original, Abramovic does indeed push the young artists set to recreate her works to their physical and mental limits—even depriving them of food at points—here we see an even more punishing mentor, Izabella rolling one artist in a barrel down a hill and also spraying water in one’s mouth. It’s surreal, absurd, hilarious. And once again, Blanchett anchors it all with her dazzling performance.

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Documentary Now! also takes some liberties in its execution of Dimo, Izabella’s long-time lover who is the stand-in for Ulay, the artist Abramovic worked with and dated for years whose dramatic return to her life operates as the climax of the original doc. In Documentary Now!’s retelling, Dimo is a prankster, a douchebro of the art world who cruises by on Izabella’s success and is somewhat of a fraud, faking his way through suffering instead of living it fully like Izabella. Fred Armisen embodies this role perfectly, his sober delivery of deplorable lines delighting.

The Izabella/Dimo relationship is one of the most striking aspects of “Waiting For The Artist.” Here, Documentary Now! tugs at what are just loose threads in the original, unraveling an insightful and cutting commentary on gender, power, and criticism in the art world. Men get to be tortured artists, full-stop. Or they just get to be eccentric madmen, as is the case with Armisen’s Dimo. Women artists like Izabella/Marina are considered emotional, fragile, objects to be devoured. Abramovic explored this very concept with her best known work, Rhythm 0, where viewers were invited to inflict violence on her body using an array of tools. Documentary Now!’s version of this piece directly makes the observation that young men were thrilled to participate. Documentary Now! unearths subtext from the work it skewers and brings it to the forefront without being too precious about it...all while being very funny.

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Documentary Now!’s take on the famous breakup piece that Abramovic and Ulay did similarly pulls at those threads. The Empire State Building ski boot crawl Izabella and Dimo do is, in fact, actually less dramatic than what Abramovic and Ulay did in real life, which was walk from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China only to break up in the middle. Documentary Now! instead doesn’t try to top that but rather heightens the drama by way of the relationship dynamic. In this retelling, Dimo doesn’t even make it to the center, becoming distracted when he flirts with a pair of secretaries and then falling asleep. Dimo doesn’t pull his weight in their relationship or their art. The public gobbles up their relationship with little regard for that imbalance, though. It’s a biting portrayal of sexism on both a personal and more systemic level.

Those underlying dynamics aren’t as apparent in The Artist Is Present, but there’s something slightly unsettling about the way Ulay attempts to deflect from his own indiscretions during a talking head interview, and even the way he explains how he handled finances while Abramovic cooked during their relationship reiterates some rigid roles within their relationship. Abramovic’s retrospective blew up especially when Ulay visited, implicitly tying her success to him even over a decade after they parted ways.

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And Documentary Now! finds an unexpected way to handle that ending. It would be difficult—impossible, really—to capture the emotions at play in the Marina/Ulay reunion in the final act of the original. Instead, Documentary Now! veers down a different path entirely, giving Izabella full control of the situation and putting Dimo in his place. She comes out squarely on top, knocking Dimo down a peg while proving she was the one in the driver’s seat all along. The chair across from her where we (in particular, anyone who has seen the original) thought Dimo might sit? She props her feet up on it. It’s cathartic, and it’s invigorating.

Ultimately, Documentary Now! is reverent of its subject while still poking fun. That’s a crucial balance. Merely mocking Marina with Izabella wouldn’t be interesting at all. In a similar way to The Artist Is Present, “Waiting For The Artist” shows its subject’s uninhibited self-obsession and more over-the-top qualities while also showing her dedication, perseverance, depth, and genius. Through Izabella, Documentary Now! holds a mirror up to Marina Abramovic, a woman who was so intimate and personal in her art and yet who feels impossible to access. Documentary Now! understands that paradox, just as it seems to understand so much of what makes The Artist Is Present work.

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Stray observations

  • I generally bring at least a little bit of knowledge of the original documentaries to the table in my reviews of this show, but you can probably tell that I’m especially familiar when it comes to this one. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present was one of my favorite documentaries for a while, and Ulay and Marina’s relationship (and breakup, really) has long fascinated me.
  • The bowl of carrots that the group eats really got me.
  • I highly recommend viewing the original if you never have. It’s a work of art on its own.
  • “I AM HUMAN” has to be my favorite faux art piece from this.

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