Film of the Week: Manifesto
In his Dada Manifesto of March 1918, Tristan Tzara speaks of “that infinite and shapeless variation, man.” Manifesto, a new film by German artist Julian Rosefeldt, presents Cate Blanchett as not quite infinite (she plays only 13 characters, 14 if you count a puppet of her), and protean rather than shapeless; but even so, her transformations seem to embody what Tzara had in mind. Among the artistic manifestos Blanchett reads out in Rosefeldt’s film are various calls for conceptual art, and conceptual art is, in a sense, what this movie is. It has its origins not in the logic of feature filmmaking, with all that entails, but started life as a multiscreen installation, originally shown at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, in 2015, and later at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, before being premiered as a theatrical feature in Sundance this year.
It should, by rights, be called Manifestos. It features Blanchett, in multiple roles, reciting extracts from assorted artistic, political, and cultural declarations (I counted 52 listed in the credits), largely from the 20th century (the earliest is the Communist Party Manifesto, 1848), the latest a 2004 text by the late American artist Sturtevant). That Rosefeldt has entitled his film in the singular suggests that the work is in itself a manifesto of sorts—but a manifesto of or for what?
In one sense, the film comes across as a manifesto for the possibilities of multiplicity, elusiveness, and for thinking outside the categories of narrative cinema—which is something that comes naturally to Rosefeldt as a gallery artist, but that doesn’t necessarily sit easily with the expectations normally attendant on a 100-minute film featuring a famous movie star. But in Manifesto, Blanchett doesn’t figure so much as an instantly recognizable actress doing a multi-role quick-change tour de force. She’s more like a highly fluid, adaptable art material: the star as mixed media.
In Manifesto’s installation form, each of Rosefeldt’s chosen topics—among them, Situationism, Futurism, architecture, and film—had its own screen, on which Blanchett played a single character (or in one, case, two). In a gallery, you could view the piece as you wish—concentrate on one or several screens, or walk around “editing” the work for yourself, following to the drift of your attention. Cut together into a single continuous film, Manifesto becomes something different. Inevitably, it at least invokes the norms of the theatrical fiction film. We start imagining connections between the various episodes—ordered in time, they come to form the impression of a narrative, even if there isn’t one—and between the characters, even if there are none. The new sense of an order emphasizes things differently. One of the characters, listed in the credits as “Conservative mother with family,” appears more than once; the payoff of her sequences is that, next to the dining room where she’s saying grace at a family meal (in fact, reciting a 1961 text by artist Claes Oldenburg), there’s a collection of stuffed animals, presided over by a live crow. In an installation, this bizarre revelation wouldn’t necessarily come across as the punch line of this strand; you might not even get to see it at all.
So there’s more of an architecture inherent to the film than if it were simply a succession of staged readings by Blanchett—but those readings, and her transformations, are mesmerizing, and often very funny. Her ability to transform herself vocally, facially and physically—helped by make-up artist Morag Ross, hair artist Massimo Gattabrusi, and costumer Bina Daigeler—puts her on a par with Streep and Swinton, although we’ve already seen how thoroughly Blanchett can merge with other people’s bodies and voices, notably as an avatar of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There.
The range of characters she plays here, and the comic brio she applies to it, makes Manifesto feel rather like one of those TV sketch shows featuring comedy shape-shifters (Catherine Tate, Tracey Ullman, the late British wizard Ronnie Barker). Manifesto has a consistent streak of humor, although it runs from broad wit to uncomfortable irony. Some fits between character and text are more obvious than others: a “tattooed punk,” as she’s listed, is a gobby mouthpiece for the tenets of Stridentism and Creationism (new movements to me, the latter involving the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo). The section on conceptual art has Blanchett as a sleekly groomed news presenter in the studio, quizzing a reporter (Blanchett again) who’s standing out in the wind and rain, on the principles of this phenomenon, as if to make it accessible to a Fox viewing public. This section also, incidentally, offers an implicit manifesto for Brechtianism, as the rainstorm is revealed to be the product of a wind machine and a shower (there are, in fact, no drama manifestos here, which is a shame: you wonder what Rosefeldt might have done with Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty). Most direct, perhaps, is the sequence with Blanchett addressing a funeral, delivering not a eulogy but a furious call for “annihilation of logic… abolition of meaning… abolition of the future.”
More delicate ironies come as Blanchett recites Oldenburg’s pop art call for new forms (“art that squeaks like an accordion… the art of teddy bears and guns… ham art, pork art, chicken art, tomato art…”), the “conservative family” scenario playing up the ironic American folksiness of the declaration. More elusive is the imperious Russian choreographer stating the tenets of 1960s collective art movement Fluxus, to a cadre of showgirls in glittering white with alien headdresses (actually, Thierry Mugler costumes for a musical extravaganza at Berlin’s Friedrichstadt-Palast). “A total work of art!” demands the Russian woman, but one suspects that a glammed-up girlie cabaret was quite what Fluxus had in mind. A more bitter irony comes as a smooth CEO delivers a toast to a corporate crowd at a chic lakeside retreat, transforming the words of Kandinsky, Barnett Newman, and Wyndham Lewis into empty sales shills for the art market.
More delicate ironies accrue in the final section, as Blanchett’s quietly authoritative schoolteacher introduces a class of children to the possibilities of cinema, beginning with Stan Brakhage’s evocation of the possibilities of “the untutored eye,” an uncorrupted mode of viewing: “There is no need for the mind’s eye to be deadened after infancy.” The section ends with Werner Herzog—in his 1999 “Minnesota Declaration”—on “ecstatic truth,” as images of children playing and pigeons taking flight reasserts the note of positivism and hope that you might expect any manifesto to embody at heart, however angry and scorched-earth its tone.
Yet, in between, there’s a nicely discordant note as the teacher monitors the children’s work, and firmly reminds them of the restrictions of the Dogme 95 filmmaking manifesto. Dogme, with its mock-religious “Vow of Chastity,” may have wanted a sort of return to innocence, but its imposition of rules in the name of purity comes across here as promoting the exact opposite of the broadened possibility imagined by Brakhage (under the Dogme rules, Manifesto itself would have been impossible).
I defy anybody—even Alex Danchev, editor of the Penguin anthology 100 Artists’ Manifestos—to instantly identify all the texts quoted. Rather than giving us manifestos in their entirety, Rosefeldt mixes and merges fragments (the Dada section combines eight texts by six writers), which may not always be consistent with each other. What emerges is a study of the different registers in which a manifesto can be couched, from gently idealistic urging to fire-and-brimstone apocalypticism (is that a movement too?), and the film highlights the tension between manifesto as, on one hand, intimate, fervently argued outsider cri de coeur and, on the other, authoritarian diktat embodying the impersonal will of a movement. The film is, in effect, a cacophonous echo box of contradictory visions, but what’s common to all these is their confrontational nature: never more evident than at the very end, when Blanchett’s ragged, bearded Homeless Man (the voice of Situationism) turns to the camera and rages, “We, of whom you believe yourself to be the judges, will one day judge you.”
DP Christoph Krauss gives the film a vivid elegance in keeping with the opulent production values of much gallery film today. There’s a definite Matthew Barney–ish gloss and fantasy quality to some of the sequences, especially in an eerie industrial space where Blanchett’s protective-suited scientist steps into an anechoic chamber (a dreamlike hint of Holy Motors). Editor Bobby Good often counterpoints Krauss’s images sharply—for example, cutting from a spectacular shot of a financial trading floor to a similarly shaped canyon in a rundown housing project. From dilapidated estates and factories, via sheened temples of science and the media, to a glacially luxurious retreat of the super-wealthy, Rosefeldt’s film presents, in knowingly glossy fashion, the economically polarized world we all live in. What becomes bitterly clear—although their words still for the most part resound with visionary conviction—is that the utopian future called for by so many of these impassioned thinkers never came to be.