MANIFESTO, drama, not rated, The Screen,
“Manifesto: noun; plural, manifestos; public declaration of policy and aims by a party, group, or individual.”
This dictionary definition opens Julian Rosefeldt’s film, in which there’s an in-your-face arrogance to the director’s fugue of manifestos from the worlds of art and politics. “Get it or not,” he seems to be saying, “I don’t care.” Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing will depend on your perspective. If you are intrigued enough by the concept and the subject matter to go see this film, you’re probably halfway to embracing it.
Rosefeldt, a German video artist, first mounted this smorgasbord of declarations of principles as an art installation. It has toured world cities, and was exhibited in this country in 2015 at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory. In installation form, assembled a dozen screens, each simultaneously presenting a 10-minute video of the Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett as a different character, spouting the declarations of various thinkers on art — the exception, and the only entry that predates the 20th century, is from the mother of all manifestos, the 1848 Marx-Engels Communist Manifesto.
In the conversion of this project from installation into film form, the element of viewer choice is lost, and we move through the material in the hands of the director as tour guide. Sometimes the contexts he chooses seem fairly literal; more typically, they are in some strange and often amusing counterpoint to the material. He opens with a homeless man (Blanchett) shuffling through post-apocalyptic urban factory desolation and muttering the Marxist prediction of the impending collapse of capitalism. Other Blanchettinhabited characters include a religious Southern mother reciting, as an endless dinner table grace, Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 essay for an exhibition catalog, “I Am For…” (Oldenburg denied that this was intended as a manifesto, admitting, “I don’t necessarily believe all those things.”) Dressed in mourning as a widow at a funeral, Blanchett delivers an angry nihilist Dada harangue. Again in black, she appears as a turbaned Russian choreographer haughtily instructing a corps de ballet, costumed in white as space aliens, that “Life is the artwork, and the artwork is life,” from the mid-’60s Fluxus declaration of artistic principles. A primary school teacher moves among the desks of her classroom. “Nothing is original. OK? So you can steal from anywhere,” she tells them. “I want you to remember what Jean-Luc Godard said. All right? ‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to!’” Other philosophical treatises are delivered from such guises as a punk rocker, a stock analyst, and a puppeteer.
A major stumbling block for the audience is Rosefeldt’s decision not to identify the source material until the end credits. Some of what you hear may sound familiar, but much of it will not, and identification gets further complicated by Rosefeldt’s mixing and interspersing bits and pieces from a variety of sources. In a 2015 interview, the artist explained:
“I started to play with the texts and to edit, combine, and rearrange them into new texts that could be spoken and performed. I like to imagine these texts as the words of a bunch of friends sitting around a table in a bar talking and arguing. They are complementing each other in a playful way. One may say ‘Down with this or that …’ and the other replies, ‘Yes, to hell with …’ I would take a sentence by one artist and interrupt it with the words of another one. Sometimes they would fit perfectly. The words took on a new energy when combined, and if you start to read the text like that it also becomes more vivid and more speakable.”
Blanchett’s chameleonic virtuoso turn in these gender-hopping roles is the glue that binds it all together. She’s played a man before — Bob Dylan in I’m Not There — and had multiple roles in and Cigarettes, but here it’s all Blanchett all the time. The breadth of her range is dazzling, as she teams up with the makeup and costume departments to create these 13 characters (there are 12 settings, some revisited several times; and in one, she plays two different characters, a redheaded television news anchor and a blonde weather reporter standing under an umbrella in a downpour).
is not a one-size-fits-all popular entertainment. It should find a rapturous following among those in the Santa Fe art world. In the segment that shows Blanchett as a puppeteer, she is seen putting the finishing touches on a puppet of herself. She affixes the wig, driving long pushpins into the figure’s skull. If you are not the audience for whom this exploration of art manifestos is intended, that may prove an apt visual metaphor. — Jonathan Richards