If you take nothing else from this review, let it be that context matters. Literally every experience can feel inappropriate in the wrong context. The word “fuck” is totally fine in the context of a BYT movie review, but what if I said it on the local news, or during a job interview? Manifesto, the “new” film from Julian Rosefeldt, tries to put a video art installation in the context of a feature-length film, and fails. I say “new” because Manifesto made its debut in an Australian art gallery in late 2015, and has been bouncing around the gallery circuit until its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Even with an impressive, rich performance from Cate Blanchett, the limits of movies ultimately make this a tiresome, strident viewing experience.
The original video installation must have been thrilling. Blanchett appeared on thirteen different monitors, and played a different character in each. She appeared as a teacher, a choreographer, a news anchor, a hobo, and so on. For each “character,” Blanchett reads excerpts from different manifestos – both artistic and political. There are excerpts from the Communist Manifesto, for example, and the Dada one, too. Rather than creating a video art experience, the feature-length Manifesto only allows the viewer to experience Blanchett’s characters in one way. They’re sort of edited in sequence, with Rosefeldt bouncing around from one situation to another.
In an art gallery, a visitor has the means to wander from one image to another. They can dwell on what resonates with them, and leave when the art tests their patience. In its original context, Manifesto must have felt daring, even overwhelming, but it feels like a polemic in this form. Part of the reason is the rhetorical nature of a manifesto: Blanchett shouts declarative statements, and never once forms an argument.
The quotes from the manifestos all had a context, whether they were artistic or socioeconomic. Their authors were railing against something specific. Absent any reference or source of outrage, the cumulative experience is woefully prtentious. I’m sure Engels and Marx would not appreciate their forceful words being appropriated this way. Then there is the matter of Blanchett’s performance. She is indeed one of the best actors of her generation, with a gift for accents that hasn’t really been seen since Meryl Streep. The make-up helps her disappear into one character after another, but the cocktail of her acting and her words creates something that’s incongruous, bordering on obnoxious.
One of the more memorable characters is a disaffected, sneering punk singer who has an abundance of mascara and tattoos. She rails against sincerity, saying that truth is the only worthwhile artistic currency. This is a thought-provoking statement, to be sure, but a rock star’s temper tantrum is hardly the best means to convey it. The same problem happens with the choreographer character: she speaks about art as if she’s Hamlet, addressing his players. Time and time again, Blanchett has an incongruous intonation. Some of these experiments are effective – I liked the one where she speaks about art while saying grace with her family – yet most of them feign sincerity. Of course, what resonates with me may not resonate with you, and vice versa. At least in a gallery, we get to choose where we devote our attention. Not all manifestos are created equal, and absent any narrative, Manifesto is significantly less than the sum of its parts.