Cate Blanchett Becomes Marina Abramović on 'Documentary Now'
The artist is satirized.
"Documentary Now" still via IMDb.
You know what kind of story “Waiting for the Artist” is at approximately the one-minute mark, when a plausibly Teutonic Klaus Biesenbach lookalike deadpans that Izabella Barta, a performance artist played by Cate Blanchett, is “without question, the most important performance artist of the last half century.” Moments later, we see Barta’s face on a billboard-sized video screen in Times Square. She is grimly eating a tube of red lipstick. Then she’s biking in a circle in an empty plaza, yowling. Performance art satire is both ubiquitous and nonspecific, but this one has a precise referent: the Marina Abramović documentary The Artist is Present.
“Waiting for the Artist” is the fourth episode of the third season of Documentary Now, an often brilliant IFC series created by Fred Armisen and Bill Hader. Each episode is a mini parody of a specific, real, critically-acclaimed documentary. (They’re all introduced by Dame Helen Mirren in a red sheath dress.) Grey Gardens becomes a Blair Witch Project-esque horror flick; the stoic sushi chef of Jiro Dreams of Sushi becomes the chicken cook of Juan Likes Rice and Chicken.
As source material, it’s about as niche as you’d expect a comedy show on IFC to be—the second episode is a riff on the ethical failings of the 1922 silent film Nanook of the North—but in good satire, knowledge of the original isn’t essential. It helps, but the jokes can be funny to outsiders and insiders alike. (This is perhaps why I devoured the 2017 police procedural satire Anime Crimes Division in two days, despite knowing nothing about anime and very little about crimes.)
“Waiting for the Artist” is very funny, in large part thanks to Cate Blanchett’s ability to imbue Barta with a kind of psychotic calm. Her shallow, panting laugh implies that breathing any deeper would unleash a scream of pain. When she collects the cell phones of young performance artists who have traveled to her isolated country home to rehearse her works, she tells them: “You will be so happy. No one will know where you are,” smiling like a goblin. Earlier, reflecting on the need for constant reinvention, she muses: “I jump out of your closet one night, and you’ll be shocked. But I do the same thing for thirty years, at some point you’re going to say to me, ‘Hey, get your own closet to hide in,’” as if hiding in the audience’s closet is the most natural, obvious metaphor for performance art in the world.
Documentary Now skews the Abramović story by transforming her real-life performance partner, Ulay, into a lazy and opportunistic art-grifter named Dimo, played by Fred Armisen. The real Ulay was, by all accounts, a sensitive and hardworking partner during his collaborations with Abramović; Dimo is not. He rides Barta’s coattails to art-world celebrity and takes credit for her ideas. When they stage a break-up performance in which they traverse the staircase of the Empire State Building, planning to meet exactly in the middle—a riff on Abramović and Ulay’s three-month trek along the Great Wall of China—Dimo screws it up by stopping for several cigarette breaks and then taking the elevator. The episode concludes with Barta paying Dimo back with a prank- cum-performance that sees him dropped through a trapdoor into a penis-shaped cubby on a wall-sized photograph of a man’s crotch: the artistic way to call someone a total dick.
This is the only thing that feels off about the episode: by attaching fame-seeking tendencies primarily to Dimo, “Waiting for the Artist” ends with the image of Barta as a resolute female artist getting her revenge on the feckless man-child whose ego has overshadowed her work. Although that’s a good story, I’m not sure how much it has to do with Marina Abramović, an undeniably brilliant, genre-defining artist of incredible stamina who also has done plenty of wacky shit to cement her celebrity all on her own: helping Lady Gaga kick her marijuana habit by having her over and directing her to consume nothing but art for three days, for example, or getting into a very unnecessary spat with Jay-Z over his adaptation of her work in his “Picasso Baby” video.
Of course, parodies that travel far afield from their source material can be absurd and delightful, but to me, the funny thing about Abramović isn’t the hyperbolic nature of her performances or her severity. It’s when she does goofy stuff in public and the stoic image falters: she’s no less of an artist, but she’s also one of us, with a recognizable tendency toward pretention. Or, as Izabella Barta puts it in a performance titled Domesticated, in which she laps milk on her hands and knees while regarded by an expensive-looking housecat: “I am human! I am human!”