Cate Blanchett, not quite cheaper by the dozen
Director Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto may mark the reintroduction of avant-garde film to the mainstream
The German artist Julian Rosefeldt grew up in the heyday of the rep house before the rise of the video store and the supremacy of Hollywood banished experimental film to the gallery and the art museum.
As a teenager in Munich in the early 1980s, he was introduced to the work of the surrealist director Luis Bunuel at a local cinematheque and the Spaniard's fractured and dream-like narratives inspire him to this day.
Rosefeldt's recent feature Manifesto contains several Bunuelian moments but, better yet, Manifesto may mark the reintroduction of avant-garde film to the mainstream.
Rosefeldt's secret weapon in this unplanned artistic assault on the multiplex is a bona fide movie star: Cate Blanchett.
"Cate is an amazing scientist, a researcher of the human condition," Rosefeldt said in a phone interview from Berlin. "She would bring knowledge and curiosity to everything I proposed."
What Rosefeldt proposed, ultimately, was a 13-channel art-gallery video installation and a parallel feature film in which Blanchett plays 13 different characters in 12 different scenes all reciting passages from artistic and political manifestos of the 20th century.
Some of these are highly ironic: a news anchor interviews a correspondent (both played by Blanchett) about conceptual art – and fakery. Some are funny: a grade school teacher lectures her young charges about how to make art and film. Some are pointed: a widow at a graveside spouts Dada, denouncing society to the grieving circle around her.
Manifesto began with a chance encounter at a Berlin gallery opening in 2010 where Blanchett was introduced to Rosefeldt and his work; they started chatting and soon agreed to a collaboration, although it wasn't clear at first what such a project would be.
The much-acclaimed Blanchett had recently starred as Elizabeth I for the second time in her career and, perhaps more to the point, had played one version of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes's experimental film portrait I'm Not There.
Rosefeldt, meanwhile, was in the midst of research for Deep Gold, his 19-minute 2013 tribute to Bunuel's L'Age d'Or, the 1930 comedy that mocked bourgeois sexual conventions in scenes of lust, repression and release. For his tribute, which he describes as "overwriting" or a piece that could be inserted into the original, Rosefeldt created a world of Weimar debauchery in which a cabaret singer intones the 1913 text, Futurist Manifesto of Lust, by Valentine de Saint-Point, a member of the Italian Futurist movement that celebrated technology and speed, but also a feminist critic of it.
"They have incredible powerful feminist statements in them," Rosefeldt says of this manifesto and its predecessor, Manifesto of Futurist Woman. "But they also have the terrible fascist ideas, like all the Futurist texts. It's bizarre."
And so, Rosefeldt had begun reading manifestos – from Futurism's utopian paeans that seemed to foreshadow the violence of the First World War to the call for a pure, non-commercial cinema issued by the Danish film movement Dogme in 1995.
In their speechifying, the manifestos struck him as performance pieces rather than texts that were meant to be read, and if they can seem menacing in their extreme pronouncements and puritanical proposals, Rosefeldt has deep sympathy for the place from which they spring: they were often written early in careers that had yet to become celebrated.
"You don't see them as something written by a very famous artist who created that work at the MOMA [Museum of Modern Art], but as a text written by an insecure and fragile teenager or early 20s who is seeking independence and doesn't really know what to do with himself or herself.
"This youthful rage seems so loud and angry, but at the same time it's immature. It's as though these people are not screaming outside, 'I want to change the world!' but rather inside, 'Who am I? Who would I like to be?'"
In that regard, the chameleon Blanchett seems perfectly suited for the job, as she plays a homeless man raging at the sky, a technician in a scrapyard speechifying about architecture as she operates the machinery or an imperious Russian choreographer addressing a bizarrely costumed corps de ballet, each time presenting herself as an entirely different persona. "We invented something only she could do," Rosefeldt says.
And they invented it in amazingly short order: after months of long-distance discussions matching characters and texts, and a two-day meeting in New York to agree on the tone for each scene, shooting took place in 12 days in Berlin: Blanchett averaged a character per day of shooting.
"She is amazing," Rosefeldt said. "I don't think you could ask that of very many actors."
Sometimes, the results pair the texts (which are often an amalgamation of various manifestos) with the setting: the Futurists' celebration of high-speed machinery is recited by a day-trader in the midst of a vast, computerized stock exchange.
More often, the point is the disconnection: a conservative housewife assembles her family around the dining room table and recites Claes Oldenburg's I am for an Art … As they pass the vegetables and carve the chicken, her children and husband sometimes sigh or hesitate, as though mum were telling that old story again – not as though she was breaking the bounds of convention and threatening to upend their daily lives by turning it all into a work of art.
The scene vividly recalls the logical disjunctions of the surrealists and wouldn't feel out of place in Bunuel's later films. In the best surrealist tradition, Rosefeldt points out that our own dreams prove action and dialogue don't always need to line up to have meaning.
"I believe in the subconscious and experimental ways of thinking," Rosefeldt said. "In my work, things don't necessarily make sense. I don't really know exactly why the Fluxus manifesto [recited by the choreographer] has to be combined with dance, but it makes you perceive the text in a different way."
If that suggests Rosefeldt works instinctively, it's also a purposeful practice: Manifesto was shot in a dozen Berlin locations, mainly scouted by the artist himself, whose mysterious origins and puzzling purposes destabilize the viewer: the trading floor is located in a building of dazzling scale; the homeless tramp inhabits some post-industrial wasteland; the housewife's house is oddly retro.
"In narrative cinema, the location announces what is going to happen; a dark street will announce a crime. I don't like to do that. You want to know what will happen in these [locations]; it will make you more curious and open-minded."
The filmmaker has little good to say about today's "banal" commercial cinema in which image, text, action, location and sound all line up to make the same point, but for Manifesto he has borrowed one important strategy from Hollywood: a celebrity who will bring extra attention to the project.
He knew there might be doubters in the art world who questioned Blanchett's presence but, on the other side, the scale of the benefits actually surprised him. It turned out that this collaboration, which had come about by chance, represented a great opportunity to break out of the elite fine-art context where he suspects that artists are often preaching to the converted.
"The black box of the movie theatre is probably a more democratic space than the white cube of the art context," he suggests. "If you don't have a certain degree of education you don't get the idea of visiting a museum on a Sunday afternoon … while in the movies, you might just go and say, 'It's a film with Cate Blanchett, let's check it out.'"
Check it out, by all means. Blanchett fans may be surprised.
Manifesto opens June 30 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, and July 7 at Cinema du Parc in Montreal.