Take one Oscar-winning actor. Pair her with a German visual artist, one with a puckish sense of humor. Give her 13 different roles, including female archetypes ranging from a Southern housewife to a blow-dried broadcast newsreader, and pray that Cindy Sherman doesn’t sue. And then give her some of the most (in)famous declarations of sociopolitical/artistic intent ever written – Marx to Maples Arce, Dziga Vertov to Guy Debord, Dada to Dogme ’95 – to speak in lieu of dialogue, while totally in character. At this point, you are either breathing heavy with anticipation or bolting for the door.
For folks who caught Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto project, either at New York’s Park Avenue Armory or abroad, the act of perusing individual videos of Cate Blanchett donning a baker’s dozen of different personae and reciting selections from close to 50 philosophical tracts felt like the answer to an unasked question: Is it possible to pull off a highbrow, high-concept celebrity art-history tour? The response was “Yes,” though whether or not these collective pieces would work as a feature was debatable; this movie star mash-up began life as an installation, and some would argue that it should have stayed that way. (Indeed, there’s a moment where Blanchett’s characters began a sing-song delivery that only makes sense if you’re standing on site in a certain area, and can hear the distinct pieces momentarily sync up.) Abandon hope, advocates of narrative storytelling and those allergic to pretension.
But whether or not you strolled through Rosefeldt’s original monitor-bank museum piece, Manifesto the 2.0 motion picture version more than justifies its existence – not from the conceptual chutzpah behind the collaboration but solely because of the chameleon in the middle of it. Stroll by a screen where snippets of stockbroker Blanchett barking about futurism might sit next to a working-class hero Blanchett muttering “we are no longer moonstruck wanderers” as dawn breaks, and maybe you muse about the connection between chin-strokes. When you see all of these vignettes strung together as a whole, however, you find yourself marveling at the sheer versatility and immersive theatricality of it all. It’s no longer a showcase primarily for the artist. Manifesto becomes a tribute to the actor – and to the process of acting itself.
Which is why, say, long after the novelty of hearing the star read aloud how Fluxus is “a pain in art’s ass” while in Norma Desmond drag and choreographing straight-outta-Alien dancers, what you remember is the delivery of the line – the harsh Eastern European accent, the silent-movie wide eyes, the emphasis on words that suddenly make Ben Vautier’s statements breathe. (She has become the pain in art’s ass.) This is what great interpreters do, yet Blanchett takes it a step further. She turns these examples of rage on the page into playful performance art, as when her ultra-professional news anchor trades technology vs. humanity arguments with a rain-soaked field reporter – played by guess who? Or when her kindly teacher begins drilling her students on Dogme ’95 rules; her tsk-tsk reminder that “the film must be in color and special lighting is not acceptable” as she corrects a kid’s quiz is both hilarious and inspired. You can practically hear Lars von Trier appreciatively snickering.
And in Manifesto‘s best segment, Blanchett turns the principles of Dada into a bitter, ranting eulogy delivered to blank-faced mourners: “One dies as a hero, or as an idiot, which is the same thing.” By the time she tearfully gets to “no more anything, nothing, nothing, nothing,” she has given you a full three-act play in those five minutes. There’s an apocryphal story about turn-of-the-century theater queen Sarah Bernhardt reading the phone book so emotionally that the audience was left weeping. That’s what Blanchett is doing here. She adds a human element. She can turn anything into art. Even artistic navel-gazing.