Failing to manifest

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday June 21, 2017
Share this Post:

A manifesto is a proclamation, both a promise and a call to action, by someone who's had it up to here with something, and wants something else to take its place. In that narrow alley of grandiose delusions called the art world, the 20th century was a 100-years-war of manifestos. Traditional forms were out, new techniques were in. It wasn't enough to paint a painting, an artist had to dream up an art-world-changing concept, and the quickest way was propaganda. German installation artist Julian Rosefeldt repurposes these esoteric exclamations in "Manifesto," opening Friday at Opera Plaza.

This 90-minute film has been edited down from a dozen 11-minute loops from Rosefeldt's installation at the New York Armory last winter, where they ran simultaneously on huge screens in a cavernous dark hall, with benches. Each loop features a different locale and a character performed by Cate Blanchett. These 12 vignettes, linked only by an actress and her aesthetic exhortations, now run end-to-end with visual pauses in-between. As a concept this may please some art students, but as entertainment it's a dud. Exactly why boredom sets in early has something to do with the difference between visual and dramatic art.

Visual art can be static, it can hang on a wall or stand in a corner, it's an object you move around to study and contemplate. Dramatic art is all about action: spiritual, emotional, verbal, and physical. Actors trace trajectories of love, heartbreak, vengeance, and remorse, while in the background empires rise and families fall. Characters are the subjects of their stories, throwing things, blowing up buildings, moving from stagecoach to saloon, in pursuit of a purpose they either do or do not achieve. Outcome matters to spectators held in suspense as long as is cinematically possible. 

Both visual and dramatic art exploit the contradiction of appearance by reality, but ever since Duchamp's "Fountain" (1917), an object's appearance or facade has vomited up its traditional content so many times, it's been irrevocably vacated. Theater and movies have a hard time approaching this level of cynicism. "Manifesto" settles into an ironic posture without bothering to finesse its insertion of manifesto into everyday life. As an anthology film, it's basically starting over every seven minutes, and while change of scene refreshes the eye, transitions are nonexistent. No connections reward an audience's continual reinvestment.

Soon after the start of "Manifesto," the protocol clarifies: Cate Blanchett will change makeup, wig, costume for each vignette, adopting a different dialect and persona. The nonstop, non sequitor verbiage she dutifully declaims pre-empts the expected funeral oration or mealtime prayer. The contemporary outfittings run from kitchen sink to high-end cocktail party, from widow's black to Hazmat white. This is less interesting than it sounds. The characters have no weight, no history, no stakes for which to gamble. Subsumed by Rosefeldt's concept, they collapse into objects we stare at without interest. Meanwhile, the visual cliches distract from the text.

Except twice. Forty minutes in, the camera travels through a backstage area full of drugged-out punk rockers. Blanchett, all in black with tattoos and black pixie, suddenly breaks the frame and starts acting. She actually infuses her words with inner turmoil as she squirms and stumbles around the room. She never attains this level before or after. Seventy minutes in, "Manifesto" suddenly bursts with subversive wit. In tidy navy blue suit, glamour makeup, and fluffy tresses, Blanchett deftly apes a newscaster's delivery, then engages with a bedraggled field reporter (also Blanchett) under an umbrella in the rain. Their ritualized back-and-forth is a perfect fit, a very funny explainer of conceptual art.

The deeper problem is that "Manifesto" doesn't believe in anything. Having shredded the passionate proclamations of the past, Rosenfeldt scatters Futurist, Situationist, Pop, Fluxus, Dada dictums higgledy-piggledy through a dozen discordant set-ups without pay-off. Blanchett's superficial versatility is no substitute for a script. Glossy production values do not a world make, beyond the inert simulacrum of a fashion photo shoot. The cinematography is blandly bright, evoking no moods. If we needed a metaphor for the self-referencing art world's failure to engage an audience beyond its own precious initiates, this is it.