On Imbuing Art with Life and Meaning
Julian Rosefeldt: “Manifesto” with Cate Blanchett
In writer-director Julian Rosefeldt’s dark, cold, grim, absurd, witty, engaging vision of the world, a sense of idealism—embodied in a quest for the meaning of art and life—prevails undaunted. The film, curiously timely in the present day, vaguely echoes the premise of Fahrenheit 451, the 1953 dystopian Ray Bradbury novel (and 1966 film) about a future society where books are banned and burned and a group of citizens memorize texts to preserve them, in effect becoming the books they were losing.
“Art requires truth, not sincerity.”
— KAZIMIR MALEVICH
In “Manifesto,” actor Cate Blanchett assumes the roles of 13 symbolic contemporary characters who ingeniously personify enduring manifestos of 20th century art movements, from Surrealism to Fluxus. Blanchett morphs into a startling range of characters—from a homeless man to an anchorwoman—who represent a montage of the central principals of movements championed by artists like Sol LeWitt in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967) and Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) and abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman in The Sublime is Now (1948).
There is little narrative knitting the film together, and almost no dialogue, only the impassioned soliloquies and implied snippets of story suggested by Blanchett’s characters in each vignette, along with setting and the actions and dress of the supporting, mostly silent, cast. What little narrative there is may be superfluous to the idea. What convincingly pervades the film is a captivating sense of the absurd, found in the offbeat flavor of the contrived scenes Rosefeldt has conceived as the backdrop for framing the manifestos that propel this “un-story.”
Out of the well of this absurdity, humor bubbles refreshingly to the surface, as in the vignette about a conservative mother who calls her two young sons and husband to lunch at the dining table. Before allowing them to begin eating, she subjects them to a seemingly endless recital of a parodied “grace” abstracted from I Am for An Art, the 1961 Pop Art Manifesto by Claes Oldenburg, which includes lines like, “I am for the art that a kid licks, after peeling away the wrapper.”
Another vignette is a newscast about conceptual art, featuring an anchorwoman in the studio fielding commentary (adapted from texts by LeWitt, Sturtevant and Adrian Piper) by a reporter on “location” in a downpour of fake (conceptual) rain.
Brilliant art direction, costumes, hair and make-up are central to the convincing visual essence of the film, and make Blanchett’s characters that much more fully realized.
The film was shot in Berlin in 2015, in an astonishingly brief 11 days, so that Blanchett sometimes had to realize two roles of the 13, involving 12 different accents, in a single day.
Rosefeldt seems adamant about making a case for authenticity in art. Concerned about the populist surge undermining democracies around the world today, the German artist/filmmaker presents “Manifesto” as a call to action. Bundled into a most unexpected package, he and Blanchett revitalize these movements and keep their motivating passions alive.