Cate Blanchett x13 stars in Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, a hilarious deconstruction of art manifestos and a call for original thought.
“I am for an art that is political, radical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” repeats Cate Blanchett in a Southern drawl as she sits down to lunch with her nonplussed husband and children. It’s the beginning of a very long speech, a pop art manifesto, that serves as a stand-in for grace. It could also be the mission statement of the film, Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, which is installation art as narrative film, slow cinema as real entertainment.
Made as 13 separate vignettes to be shown on separate screens in an art exhibit, Manifesto is a deconstruction of historic artist manifestos. It’s also the funniest film I saw at Sundance this year. As a ninety-minute film, the vignettes don’t all play straight through; we return repeatedly to some throughout the runtime. Through humour, gorgeous visuals, and 13 different characters (with 13 different accents) all played by Cate Blanchett, Manifesto interrogates the purpose and sincerity of manifestos, and how they figure into our daily lives: as toasts, on the news, in speeches, as artists’ directions, and more.'Manifesto' interrogates the purpose and sincerity of manifestos.Click To Tweet
Each of the characters Blanchett plays represents an art movement and its related manifestos — from futurism to abstract expressionism to surrealism — more than a three-dimensional person. Still, the physical feat of her performances, and the requisite costume, makeup, and hair design required for her transformations, should not be understated. As an Eastern European choreographer in a black cape, Blanchett gestures in wide motions with her arms. As a posh CEO in a draped red blouse with oversized glasses, she’s casual and authoritative, reading her prepared toast from cue cards. And in tight black leather, with a Northern British accent and excessive eyeliner, she has the loose movements of a drunken rocker, preaching to people too stoned or preoccupied to give her a second thought. Manifesto is an exquisite demonstration of the close ties between the art of costume design and physical performance.
Rosefeldt’s background is in architecture, and one of the first apparent goals of the film is to make installation art into narrative film — to explore the relationship between what could be museum art and the people who interact with it. In one incarnation, Blanchett plays a scientist in a white suit who walks down a purple and green spiralling staircase and into a golden room with walls covered in protruding golden prisms. At the centre of the room is a horizontal black obelisk straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, from which Blanchett keeps a fearful distance. In another incarnation, Blanchett is a maker of puppets, including one in her own image. The scene begins with the camera scanning across a room full of puppets of famous figures, from Hitler to John and Yoko. You can imagine these intricate works being displayed in cases in a museum, to be browsed at your own pace and convenience. But here, Rosefeldt controls our gaze and our eyes’ movements in one extended, unbroken shot.
By shooting in buildings or areas that are organized in repeated patterns, Rosefeldt suggests that the monotony of these spaces is creeping into our psyche. The architecture serves as the first sign that we’re becoming brainwashed carbon copies of each other, slaves to whatever we’re told. The film’s opening follows Blanchett as a hunched homeless man walking through an abandoned industrial area where all of the buildings are the same. Next, she’s a stockbroker in a suit, sat in front of one of hundreds of blue screens in an office with row upon row of similar cogs. By the end of the segment, we’ve pulled back to reveal not just Blanchett’s desk, but the many rows on her floor and on many floors above.The architecture serves as the first sign that we’re becoming brainwashed carbon copies of each other, slaves to whatever we’re told.Click To Tweet
Manifesto is a rousing call for original thought, echoing the crowd member in Life of Brian who repeats, “He says we need to think for ourselves!” It’s why Blanchett plays a primary schoolteacher in the final segment, preaching Dogme 95 principles and Jim Jarmusch’s “Nothing is Original” manifesto. If we’re teaching the young to accept arbitrary rules without question, to become cogs in the machine, what hope is there for society?
While Rosefeldt warns us not to accept manifestos as fact, he also suggests that they tend to be delivered into a void. Or, at the least, that manifestos fall on deaf ears. In a eulogy at a funeral, one of Blanchett’s characters takes the opportunity to shit on dadaism, her audience, and the dead. She proclaims, “One dies as a hero or as an idiot, which is the same thing….Dada is still shit. But from now on we want to shit in different colours…and you are all idiots.” Nobody listening bats an eye.
As the film progresses, Rosefeldt’s approach to manifestos gets increasingly scathing. The juxtaposition between the situations or settings in which the manifestos are given and the content of the manifestos becomes increasingly absurd. Before beginning a TV broadcast about conceptual art and minimalism, we hear the producer instruct, “Let’s get our truth faces on.” Here, Cate interviews Cate, seemingly in the field and the pouring rain, on the value of conceptual art and how it is created. Her correspondent explains, “Art critics use a secret language when communicating with each other through art magazines.” And they conclude, “Conceptual art is good when the idea is good,” before revealing the crew that is filming correspondent Cate and operating the fake rain pouring on her.This deconstruction of manifestos, this call for original thought, is itself a manifesto.Click To Tweet
Here, Rosefeldt himself is making absurdist conceptual art to interrogate whether news broadcasts, with their preponderance of political pundits shooting off bullshit, are really any different than the leaps we make in fine art criticism. More broadly, the film itself is conceptual art, and as Broadcaster Cate argues, because its ideas are good, it is good. But it’s also not afraid to draw attention to the fact that this deconstruction of manifestos, this call for original thought, is itself a manifesto — just as prone to absurdity, to audiences who don’t listen, and to excessive theatricality.
Read all of The Seventh Row’s Sundance coverage here.