Cate Blanchett's anti-populist Manifesto

by Linda Herrick / 19 February, 2018
Cate Blanchett in some of her Manifesto roles. Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

Cate Blanchett in some of her Manifesto roles. Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

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Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto, a video artwork starring Cate Blanchett in 13 roles that is coming to Auckland, makes no pretence of originality but has a message for our times. 

There’s a moment in German film-maker and academic Julian Rosefeldt’s 13-part project Manifesto when the camera slowly pans down from the internal heights of the Berlin Stock Exchange towards a hard-faced female broker played by Cate Blanchett.

She’s talking on her cellphone, studying spreadsheets, fiddling with her pen. Then she turns to the camera and starts to declaim a torrent of words, switching midway into a disconcerting monotone chant: “Our eyes, spinning like propellers, take off into the future on the wings of hypothesis …”

The collage of words, taken from the manifestos of Italian Futurist artists from 1909-1922, is obsessive, powerful and slightly comical. So imagine sitting in a gallery surrounded by 13 huge screens, each simultaneously featuring multi-accented Blanchett characters acting out readings from artistic manifestos spanning the past century. The Tower of Babel comes to mind.

“Isms” abound: Marxism, situationism, vorticism, Dadaism, surrealism, stridentism, suprematism. And then there are the schools of architecture, pop art, fluxus and the film manifestos of Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier.

Cate Blanchett in some of her Manifesto roles. Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

Blanchett’s characters include a homeless man, a tattooed punk, a funeral speaker, a housewife, a teacher, a newsreader, a choreographer and a puppeteer.

Each segment lasts 10 minutes 30 seconds, with precisely timed quiet spells book-ending the dialogue.

A linear movie edit of the project played at last year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, but the Auckland Art Gallery will host the work as its creator originally conceived it.

Julian Rosefeldt. Photo/Renate Brandt

“You hear that choir moment when she is speaking in a one-pitch tone at the same time, every 10 and a half minutes,” says Rosefeldt, on the phone from Berlin. “You have that different tone piling up into one harmony. That’s a very strong element. There is a mixture of quiet moments and a cacophony, so you always have a choice. You can walk around and stand in the middle and listen to everything or you can sit down and focus on one screen.”

Rosefeldt and Blanchett first met at a Berlin gallery in 2010, where he suggested they should work together. “Since then, I had been thinking what could that be. Then I started reading hundreds of manifestos that I came to through another project of mine, Deep Gold, a homage to [Spanish surrealist film-maker] Luis Buñuel.”

He began wondering how the manifestos could be performed, then realised it was a potential project for Blanchett. “I was approaching it from both sides, with Cate at the back of my head and also a real interest in manifestos.”

The film shoot, in wintry Berlin in 2014, lasted just 12 “insane” days, Rosefeldt says, laughing.

Some of the dialogue is hysterically venomous. Blanchett’s turn as funeral speaker sees her barking at the mourners: “You are all complete idiots”; “I spread demoralisation wherever I go.” Such was the life-view of Tristan Tzara’s 1918 Dada Manifesto.

Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

Blanchett’s smug chief executive hosting a private party in a plush lakeside villa mutters to a guest, “The poor are detestable animals!”, from English vorticist Wyndham Lewis’s 1914 writings. The villa, as an aside, was built by Sigmund Freud’s architect son, “and I found that funny”, says Rosefeldt. A puppet of Freud appears in the surrealism segment in which Blanchett has created a puppet in her own likeness, while chanting the words of André Breton.

“You mention anger, which many of them had,” says Rosefeldt. “I found it very touching to see that many of the texts were written when the artists were very young … it is pure, young, juvenile writing. All this anger in the texts gives the impression that these people are very self-secure, but keeping their age in mind, you can see it’s rather the opposite in terms of fragility and sensitivity.”

Blanchett’s family – her husband, the director Andrew Upton, and their sons Dash, Roman and Iggy – appear in the pop art piece. Her prim middle-class housewife is strict with the boys – and her husband – as they sit down to lunch and she recites a grace based on US pop art exponent Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 manifesto, I am for an art …

Cate Blanchett in some of her Manifesto roles. Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

Cate Blanchett in some of her Manifesto roles. Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

The boys are well behaved, aside from the odd slide towards the giggles when their mother’s words turn risqué – “I am for an art under the skirts” – earning them a flash of disapproval.

Manifesto concludes in a junior classroom, with teacher Blanchett instructing her pupils on the fundamentals of Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Film-Making (2002) and Lars von Trier’s Dogma 95 (1995): “Nothing is original, so you can steal from anywhere that resonates with originality.”

And that is the central ethos of the Manifesto project. “Of course,” says Rosefeldt. “I have written a script, stealing from everywhere. But I defined the general layout of each character the way I feel it. I was always talking to Cate about it, working with the characters on set. Her incredible experience and talent came into play and she added enormously to this.”

Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

Photo/Sundance Institute/Barbara Schmidt

Manifesto has taken on a life of its own. “People are rereading the manifestos and starting to write their own,” says Rosefeldt. “In this time in which we are living, populism is feeling like a disease over the planet. So it’s important that you get back to texts from people who are really angry about it but intelligent.

“We are living in a time when anger is the only thing – panic, prejudice and fear – and there’s nothing in it but that. Loudness and volume. I always say manifesto writers were also loud and angry, but they had a lot to say. They were very creative and inspiring, so that’s why you feel how you feel when you watch it – you feel inspired and overwhelmed. I think you can even call it the anti-populist manifesto.”

Manifesto, Auckland Art Gallery, February 24-June 10.

This article was first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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