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Now Playing: The Artist is Present

Now Playing: The Artist is Present

"[The] body was always naked… because of 70s. In 70s all artists was (sic) all naked--all of us dress in dirty white or dirty black; that was it." Humorously minimalising one of the more serious aspects of her earlier work in a speech at The Smithsonian, transgressive Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic seems so entrancing and well calibrated that it's nearly impossible to tell whether she's performing a character or not. Part cypher and part siren, for almost 50 years Abramovic has been building a body of work that is nearly impossible to look away from. Matthew Ackers and Jeff Dupre's new doc The Artist is Present, built around Abramovic's 2010 MoMA retrospective of the same name, is, like its subject, too compelling to ignore.

Originally underestimated by critics at its premier, Abramovic's MoMA retro evolved into a legitimate cultural moment in New York city, drawing record crowds to the museum and causing many to queue overnight to sit opposite her. Online, the official, somber MoMA Flic'r stream fractured into the even-more-somber Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry and the not nearly as heavy Marina Abramovic Hotties. Waiting in line for a sitting itself even received the game treatment from Sisyphus-obsessed artist-cum-game-designer Pippin Barr.

The film follows her in preparation for the event, Abramovic herself plainly laying out the case for performance as a mainstream art discipline--the volume of her work makes it hard to argue otherwise--while filmmakers Ackers and Dupre, fully enthralled by her many charms, illuminate her with a loving lens that makes the religious fervor with which thousands attend her MoMA retrospective all but a foregone conclusion.

Deceptively complicated in its own way, the film gains surprising emotional momentum in the second act with the appearance of German artist Ulay, Abramovic's former lover of 12 years with whom she travelled Europe doing transgressive and often dangerous performance pieces and living rough as a young artist plying what was then an unestablished trade. Ultimately hagiographic but clearly accomplished in presentation and polish, the only seam showing in the HBO-produced doc is found the Philip Glass-aping soundtrack, which overbears in a way that unfortunately reminds that in film, perhaps more so than in art, coercion is always present. Playing at SF Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post Street, (415) 525-8600.

Also playing this week:

Beasts of the Southern Wild - Set in a mythical community on the Louisiana bayou, Ben Zeitlin's debut feature presents an intriguing hybrid of fantasy and realism that feels entirely new. Beasts bagged the Camera D'or award at Cannes this year, and writ large on the big screen, it's not hard to see why. Playing at Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Center, 415-352-0835.

Nobody Else But You - While the title has a ring that situates it firmly in the world of contemporary French cinema, Nobody Else blends a small-town detective story with a time-spanning romance between a writer and a dead Marilyn-Monroe look-alike with an off-kilter tone that's more Cohen Brothers than Lumiere Brothers. Playing at Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California Street, (415) 267-4893.