Last December, the cavernous hall of the Park Avenue Armory was filled with 13 movie-theater-sized screens that projected the face of Cate Blanchett. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that they projected the many faces of Cate Blanchett—transformed into a shellacked news anchor with a Farrah Fawcett flip; a gap-toothed, raccoon-eyed rocker with collarbones you could hang your coat on; a heartland matriarch doling out family supper to her winsome children; a sooty homeless man with a prophet's gaze. Blanchett was an integral—it's hard to imagine this project existing without her astounding performance—component of this project, Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto.
The project underlines the aesthetics of 20th-century manifestos: brash, unapologetic, artistic arguments that are really outlines of a new world order. For each character that Blanchett inhabited, various manifestos from different time periods and individuals were edited and stitched together, so that they flow into each other in uncannily seamless monologues. The effect is hypnotic and enveloping; didacticism, it turns out, has maintained a relatively steady tone across the decades (or such is Blanchett and Rosefeldt's genius that they were able to construct such a convincing crazy quilt). The work draws from manifestos by Futurists, Dadaists, and Situationists, as well as individual artists—including the early 20th-century Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich, American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
Next week, the work will open in cinemas in New York and then in additional cities on May 26. The theatrical version of the work has been edited down to about 95 minutes. (If you watched all 13 of the films in the installation, it would take over two hours.) And a sort of linearity has been imposed. But, as Rosefeldt acknowledged when I met him and Blanchett last week, the film that will open in theaters doesn't exactly have a plot. "When you're watching a movie," he said, "you're expecting a story to be told, and that story, of course, isn't there.... And so you have to develop a visual narrative." But rather than a hindrance, Rosefeldt and Blanchett see this element as a means of liberation. "It's rare that you get to sit in the cinema and allow your brain to unwind and free associate," Blanchett said. "You're propelled, usually, by narrative point to another narrative point, to an end. And that's not this experience."
But if the film is without a narrative linearity, it's not without a point, even if those points arise, in part, from circumstance. When Manifesto was screened at a film festival earlier this year, the audience burst out in laughter when one of the archetypes—a frizzy-haired elementary school teacher, complete with craft-fair jewelry—tells her students, "All current art is fake. All of man is fake." Accusations of falsity have been rife in recent months, of course—albeit in a different context. "There were a few moments in the film," said Rosefeldt, when "all of a sudden it became connected to actual situations, without it being intended, of course. Who would've guessed two years ago that such a man would be president?"
And there's a larger point in the way that these mainly male-authored manifestos are voiced and given new life by a woman. "You have a very present female perspective on those now great members of the art establishment," said Blanchett. "It felt like it was an active...not protest, but an act of political response." To have a woman at the center of these manifestos "responding to it, subverting it, and getting to voice it," gives them "a freshness or a new relevance." But for her, personally, the effort to encroach on male territory was not entirely unfamiliar: "As a woman working in cinema and in the theater," Blanchett reminded me, "I am well versed in speaking the words of men."