When I saw the old Whaler's Wharf movie theater during last year's festival it was a dusty shell being worked over by a construction crew. Now, thanks in part to a matching grant from the Mass. Cultural Council (they are still 20% short of their financial goal), it has been transformed into the Waters Edge Cinema, a spanking new 70-seat facility, as comfortable as the studio screening rooms in New York and LA, and with projection quality far superior to anything you might find in the multiplexes.
That pristine projection proved an asset at the screening of Matthew Akers's "Marina Abramovic: the Artist is Present." It opens with an image we don't see that often: a long close-up of a human face. It belongs to the performance artist of the title, who is in the midst of an ongoing project in her retrospective show last year at MoMA. For eight hours a day, six days a week, for three months straight she sat motionless in a chair in a gallery as thousands of visitors one-by-one sat in front of her and looked into her eyes. The effect is powerful. Many weep as years of repressed pain lift before her benevolent, even beatific gaze. My eyes welled up, too.
For that experience alone this film should be seen. It demonstrates how cinema can actually make the artist seem present, offering an empathetic fellow consciousness that mirror's one's soul. But the film also succeeds as a skillful account of Abramovic's controversial career as a performance artist, a provocateur who uses her body -- often naked, lacerated, or pushed to its physical limitations -- to compel viewers into awareness of their own physical existence.
Despite the often shocking nature of her art, however, Abramovic seems a romantic at heart. In one of her projects, she and her longtime lover and collaborator started at separate ends of the Great Wall of China and walked toward each other. It took months for them to meet in the middle. There they embraced, and parted for good.
Speaking of romantics, Shannah Laumeister's documentary "Bert Stern: Original Madman" offers an intimate portrait of the title photographer whose advertising images and celebrity portraits did much to shape pop cultural consciousness from the 1950s to the 1970s. His nude photos of Marilyn Monroe, the last pictures of her ever taken, might be what he's most famous for. More recently he got mixed reviews for his photos of Lindsay Lohan in the original Monroe poses that were published recently for "New York" magazine.
What can you say? The guy loved women. He loved looking at them and capturing and possessing their beauty in his often sublime photographs. If Abramovic could be regarded as a transcendent exhibitionist, perhaps Stern is her opposite, a defeated voyeur.