Directed by Julian Rosefeldt
Opens May 10 at Film Forum
Why make a Manifesto? Why write a manifesto, for that matter? As a public declaration of aims, a manifesto can outline an artistic program, clarify the motives behind an artist’s work, or call out other artists, the rotten status quo, and the corrupt establishment. The authors may flout their own rules, produce impenetrable prose, and pick fights for the hell of it, but still, the manifesto provides for its contemporaries the articulation of a particular position. In the future, it may be taken up and incorporated into somebody’s usable past. Julian Rosefeldt’s installation-turned-feature-film Manifesto does none of these things, and doesn’t try. The film instead suggests that the 20th-century manifesto, like every other literary genre, is susceptible to “the quantitative approach.” The manifesto, too, can be digested and made data.
Manifesto began as a 2.5-hour, multi-channel installation, and has been edited by Bobby Good into a 95-minute film, starting 13 different characters cosplayed by Cate Blanchett. In various wigs and accents, on-screen and in voiceover, she recites a macaronic screed comprised of about fifty manifestos, including: the Dogme 95 Manifesto; Guy Debord’s Situationist Manifesto; the manifestos of the Surrealists, the Suprematists, and the Futurists; manifestos written by architects; manifestos written by Sol LeWitt; and other works by other guys (Adrian Piper is one of a handful of female manifesteers whose work is excerpted).
With every character, Blanchett changes locations and locutions, going from a factory to a lab to a television station to a classroom. Unfortunately, Manifesto’s combinations of setting and texts largely provide neither commentary nor clarity. Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto read aloud by a mourner at a funeral is broadly amusing, and the apparent incongruity suits the Dada aesthetic. But it is neither very clever nor insightful when a wealthy hostess tells her guests that “the rich are bores without exception,” (that’s the Vorticists) after quoting an abstract impressionist (that’s Barnett Newman). The film suggests that there is shared space between the manifesto and the prayer, the oration, the stoned rant, and the schoolroom lesson. It has nothing further to show about these connections. The experience of watching becomes that of playing a children’s memory game; for every line that sounds familiar, you get to pat yourself on the back.
At least Manifesto seems to have been a feat to shoot. Rosefeldt had eleven days with Blanchett in Berlin, and there are a lot of wigs to switch out, not to mention a dance troupe in white Alien-style helmets to choreograph: Blanchett shouts bits of the Fluxus Manifesto at them in her Slavic Choreographer persona. It’s difficult to find anything but effort to recommend the film. Spliced and layered, stripped of their contexts, gathered just because they are available, the manifestos lose whatever meaning they once held. The only property revealed by this arrangement is the shrillness and obtuseness of the texts. Manifestos are written as a response to a perceived crisis, and in a crisis, it’s hard (though crucial) to keep a sense of a humor. But what’s Manifesto’s excuse? It should feel well at ease. The first, and last, Blanchett character we see is a homeless man shouting through a bullhorn from an abandoned building, and ruin porn has long been an accepted symbol of some kind of “critique.” There’s data on that.