There’s an old acting exercise wherein an actor plays the same text ten different ways — as petulant child, scolding parent, scorned lover, and evil maniac — stretching the actor and revealing undiscovered nuances in the text. Cate Blanchett’s 13 performances in “Manifesto,” an immersive video installation by the artist Julian Rosefeldt currently making its American premiere at Park Avenue Armory, is the closest a film performance may ever come to capturing the spirit of live theater.
The film will screen as a 90-minute experimental feature at the Sundance Film Festival next month, but starts its life in New York in a very different form.
Like an actor in rehearsal, Blanchett is playful and inventive, surprising her scene partners and even herself. At their best — and Blanchett is at hers here — actors are vessels through which creativity flows uninhibited. In “Manifesto,” viewers have the rare chance to catch Blanchett in the flow, vibrating with the thrill of every actor’s illusive mistress: Discovery. But to focus solely on Blanchett would do “Manifesto” a disservice. The project is that rare piece of art that uses a simple concept, executed beautifully, to communicate abstract ideas. Rosefeldt combines theater, film, and literature to create a remarkable meditation on the purpose of art. If it sounds heady, take heart — it’s also pretty entertaining.
The basic concept is this: As 13 different characters, Blanchett performs rousing monologues from the manifestos of the great artistic movements of the 20th century, including writing by Sol LeWitt, André Breton, Claes Oldenburg, and Jim Jarmusch. The viewer travels at their leisure between 13 screens (and 13 Blanchetts). First, she’s a bearded vagabond shouting at the sky that “the role of the artist can only be that of the revolutionary”; then, she’s a severe Russian choreographer lecturing at her alien-costumed dancers that “Fluxus is a pain in art’s ass”; lastly, she’s a school teacher whose lesson plan includes Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s “Dogme 95” manifesto, which she shares with a classroom of doodling 7 year-olds.
On the page, the dense language and lofty ideals of the manifestos would be difficult to process — in one sitting no less — not to mention most people don’t have the time or inclination to do so. Like great classical actors who turn Shakespeare’s most obscure histories into lively entertainment, Blanchett finds finds humor in the text’s abstract ideas. Rosefeldt’s concept sets her up well, and the magic happens in the juxtaposition between text and scene.
It’s not every day that conceptual art invokes audible laughter, but try holding back when Blanchett, as a eulogizing widow, fights through tears to tell elegantly dressed mourners: “Dada is shit. But from now on, we want to shit in different colors.” Other times, it’s Rosefeldt’s editing that provides the satire, as when an industrial trash compactor dumps its massive load and Blanchett cries, “Hurray for everlasting architecture.”
Rosefeldt, who studied architecture, exhibits as cinematic eye as any. He has a penchant for the grandiose, and favors sweeping overhead shots that toy with scale. Architecture features heavily, and he finds much to admire in ornate churches and sterile laboratories alike. The colors are vivid and precise; every visual detail belies Rosefeldt’s ability to find beauty in the unexpected, from a maze of industrial pipes, to a wall of human-like puppets, to an alien dance number that would give Lady Gaga a run for her money.
While “Manifesto” will travel to Sundance and beyond as a movie, it’s hard to imagine that it will capture the thrilling experiencing of being immersed a gallery of performances. The most exciting moment in “Manifesto” occurs when all thirteen Blanchetts stare directly into the screen at the same time and deliver their lines in a sing-song monotone. With each at a different pitch, the harmonious medley of ideas and voices envelops viewers like a warm bath of different worlds.
Standing in the Armory Drill Hall — one of the largest and oldest spaces in New York City — while absorbing Rosefeldt’s stunning images and sounds is nothing short of transcendent. Engaging with the films at an unhurried pace, physically grappling with the installation, provides a unique experience specific to the design of the work. There’s no way to replicate that in a movie theater, but it’s a great expansion of this movie star’s talent.