“I loved the movie,” I told Cate Blanchett.
“Is it a movie?” Cate Blanchett replied.
“Um…” I said, still shaking her hand.
“Really,” she said. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
In another context, that could have been a trick question. But I was meeting with the Artist Formerly Known as Carol to discuss “Manifesto,” and there are no easy answers when it comes to the her beguiling collaboration with German video pioneer Julian Rosefeldt (whom she met at a gallery opening six years ago and vowed to work with that same night). In fact, it could be argued that the movie — or not movie — exists to embarrass easy answers, to encourage critical thinking, to challenge our preconceptions of what art should be and what art should be called.
Initially staged as an immense multi-screen installation that viewers could walk through and process at their own pace, the project has been newly reshaped as a linear 94-minute theatrical experience; movie or not, it’s now playing in movie theaters. The basic premise remains the same: From Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto” to Werner Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration” and all points in between, Rosefeldt takes the defining artistic diatribes of the last two centuries, threads them into a beautiful havoc of conflicting ideas, and funnels them through the mouth of the world’s most fluid star.
Blanchett plays 13 different characters, and none of them agree with each other — most of them don’t even agree with themselves. In the funniest of these gorgeously shot vignettes, Blanchett appears as a prim teacher who rattles off film treatises to a bored class of elementary schoolers. One moment she’s reciting Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chastity” and preaching about the need to restore purity to the cinema, the next she’s quoting Jim Jarmusch’s “Golden Rules of Filmmaking” and telling her students to “steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”
The kids fidget in their seats as they repeat after the only adult in the room. It’s up to them to strafe through this intellectual crossfire and make some kind of sense from what they find in the rubble.
Blanchett is a heavily bearded homeless man who stands on the rooftop of an abandoned factory and screams Guy Debord’s “Situationist Manifesto” at the sky. She’s a bridge-and-tunnel stockbroker who sits in a sea of computer terminals and orates about futurism. She’s a surrealist puppeteer who makes herself into a marionette, a news reader who quizzes herself about conceptual art, and a scientist whose speech on suprematism is interrupted by the discovery of a monolith. At one point, in a bit that seems lifted directly from a Roy Andersson film, she recontextualizes Tristan Tzara’s “Manifeste de M. Antipyrine” as a funeral oration: “Dada remains within the framework of European weaknesses, it’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colors.” Amen.
Manifestos are first and foremost expressions of identity, and so the idea of one person delivering more than one of them — let alone 13 — is a fascinating thing to process, particularly when that person is able to level the playing field between them all. Blanchett, who refuses to pass judgement, ensures that each of her characters is silly, and that each of their messages is seductive.
“I’m very non-hierarchical in the way I work,” she said, sitting inside a dimly lit room near the projection booth of the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, minutes before “Manifesto” was set to enjoy its New York premiere. Her brilliant career has borne that out from the start, and only more so as she moves further into the stratosphere.
2017 serves as a perfect microcosm of her versatility, her unwillingness to discriminate between high and low: She began the year with “Manifesto,” and followed that up by earning a Tony nomination for her dazzling performance in “The Present,” an unbridled modern update of Chekhov’s first play. This fall, she’ll be seen in multiplexes across the world as the villain in the new “Thor” movie.
Still, “Manifesto” was the rare project that gave Blanchett pause. “I’m known for my work in a narrative medium, so I hoped that I wasn’t going to be a liability in the context of the art world. I was afraid that might subvert the audience’s willingness to try and not make sense of it,” she said. “That was my only worry.”
Rosefeldt, a genially confident man who tends to talk in a whisper, was terrified for the opposite reason. “I have a slightly different position of this,” he said, “because I worked with the team for almost a year preparing the film, and then Cate arrived and we just threw her into this world… I was scared to death knowing that I was going to work with a Hollywood star.”
“Maybe one day you will,” Blanchett cracked.
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