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by Alessio Franko
WHAT DOES THE WORD “manifesto” manifest in your mind? Karl Marx or the Unabomber? Theoretical insight or idealistic impracticality? Genius or self-importance? Truth or nonsense? We parse historical manifestos in search of clues about past artistic and political movements, but attempts to take them at face value, as living texts with application to our lives, may activate incredulity or even contempt. Theater and film director Julian Rosefeldt associates the idea of the manifesto with “arrogance,” and he has made an entire film about them.
Originally created as an art installation, with each of its component cinematic vignettes playing simultaneously throughout a gallery, Manifesto was recut in 2015 into a feature film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year and is currently playing at select theaters throughout the country. Inspired by her portrayal(s) of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, Rosefeldt cast Cate Blanchett as thirteen different characters, each reciting excerpts from famous manifestos as we gain a look into their lives. The film is a feverish tour guide, both contemplatively wandering and assertively leaping from setting to setting. Rosefeldt is uninterested in telegraphing any roadmap or destination. We return to some characters over and over, while others take the stage briefly and vanish, each bringing a unique blend of gravitas, candidness, wryness, and sometimes brilliantly understated comedy to the table. Manifesto is a kino-massage: it grabs, squeezes, soothes, tickles, and reaches parts of you usually left untouched. You leave the theater feeling invigorated and rearranged from head to toe.
Far from simply a satisfying piece of craft, Manifesto is a focused inquiry into the relationship between art and ideas. The manifesto excerpts that account for virtually all of the words spoken in the film -- drawn from figures such as Filippo Marinetti, George Maciunas, Jim Jarmusch, and Lars von Trier -- may be familiar to the viewer, but Manifesto shines a piercing new light on them. Rather than treating these texts as windows onto particular figures or movements, Rosefeldt sets history aside and lets the texts inform and contextualize one another. Tossing the dictionary definition of “manifesto” on screen in the film’s first moments feels like a rote move, but it hammers home the director’s interest in reverse-engineering just what the manifesto is, where they come from, and how to read them.
BLANCHETT TREATS the audience not only to her jaw-dropping versatility as she transforms from a news anchor to a homeless man to a Russian celebrity choreographer and more, but also to a fascinating experiment in textual analysis. Stripping these texts down to their raw content alone, Blanchett forgets that they are treatises and works with them as pieces of drama, as if they were soliloquies or asides from a play containing clues not to a disciplinary orientation but to an emotional drive. In one of the most memorable scenes, Blanchett stands over the coffin at a funeral, face covered in a black veil, and addresses her fellow mourners with a medley of dadaist writing from Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon. Watching this character indict all of civilization (“No more religions, no more republicans, no more royalists, no more imperialists, no more anarchists... NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING.”) we understand the dadaist not as a smirking contrarian, but as someone lashing out against the burying of something precious to them. As a writer, I continue to wonder why I was so shocked to hear a writerly voice taken off the flat and sober page and imbued with lived experience.
And one cannot speak of Blanchett’s mesmerizing renditions of these excerpts without mentioning the sets she moves through, which are visually rich and often obscenely vast: the homeless man grumbling about bourgeois art schleps through a blighted, gray campus where the buildings that don’t stand abandoned lie in giant heaps of rubble. A tough-as-nails businesswoman narrates Manifesto of Futurism as the camera tracks steadily up the office building, revealing what seems, after ten, fifteen, twenty seconds, like it must be a literally endless hive of worker bees at their cubicles. A hazmat-suited custodian walks a winding path through a bottomless factory decked from head to toe with machines of indeterminate function. Clashing with our intimate experience of Blanchett’s solitary characters, these near-surrealist backdrops establish an elemental dramatic conflict: that of the individual against the world. Blanchett fights her way through hopeless clutter, suffocating emptiness, blinding sameness, or incalculable variety, and she can never win. With the deck so stacked against her, all she can do is demand it be totally reshuffled.
Rosefeldt is astute in choosing to open the film with yet another excerpt from Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto” -- “I do not wish to convince. I have no right to drag others into my river.” Its typical pugnaciousness aside, the manifesto is not necessarily an argument. An argument can only be held between equals, and inequality often thins the line between convincing and coercing. The manifesto, on the other hand, can serve as an affirmation of a subjective truth that invites, if not incites, others to affirm their own. The film further highlights the liberating potential of the manifesto by putting its texts, which are almost all written by men, in the hands of a woman, playing women. A woman in a powerful role on screen will bring up a unique mix of thoughts and feelings for every viewer, and represents a bold, inspired choice that Rosefeldt had space to push even further. What, for instance, would this film look like driven by a small ensemble of new voices rather than a singular, super-recognizable star? Considering the Marxist and countercultural thrusts of many of the texts, Manifesto’s appeal to Blanchett’s virtuosity can feel dissonant.
There can never be too many reminders that work is allowed to be personal for today’s writers and filmmakers, as they push through inhospitable, cluttered landscapes of their own. The viral logic of social media demands of writers and commentators an endless stream of clickable “content,” no matter how little actual content it contains, while risk-averse film studios and producers turn away countless inventive projects in favor of derivative genre fare. To young artists bombarded with the paradox that, in order to get their unconventional work seen, they must first master conventional form, Blanchett and Rosefeldt’s irreverent experiment should come as an enlivening intervention. To insist on seeing self-importance in Manifesto or its source material is to miss a great deal of the point: The self is important.
Alessio Franko is a Brooklyn-based writer of teleplays and radio plays. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in New York and earned his bachelor’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago.