Manifesto February 9, 2018
1 Hr., 36 Mins.
andy Jackson delivered a copious number of memorable compliments during his tenure on American Idol (2002-’16). Unfortunately, my favorite of them all eventually came to be worn out like a copy of The Catcher in the Rye (1951) in a public library: time and time again, Jackson’d let out an impressed sigh, flash his pearly white veneers, and declare that the singer in front of him was so talented, he wouldn’t mind listening to them belt out names listed in a phonebook.
This proclamation was fun a couple times – then it got overused. But it
nonetheless has sat idly in the back of my brain in the years since I stopped being a young Idol fan. I’ve found that such a phrase has dependably applied when watching my favorite actors let loose. Even when someone like, say, River Phoenix, stars in cinematic dookie, an ability to still be enamored remains retained. The latter, along with a select few other performers, could quite literally recite the names of yellow-paged businesses for 90 or so minutes and I’d still be wont to watch.
So I'd say that what Cate Blanchett does in Manifesto (2017), an esoteric art film directed by avant garde videographer Julian Rosefeldt, is maybe the closest we’ll ever come to seeing Jackson’s compliment become a reality.
The objective is simple. The divine, fearless Blanchett will perform a series of philosophical manifestos as 13 different characters. Some of the manifestos included belong to thinkers and artists like Karl Marx, Vicente Huidobro, Sol LeWitt, Lars von Trier, and others; among the characters showcased are a rotten-toothed homeless man, an immaculately coiffed news anchor, a grandiloquent theater director, and a morose partygoer.
Usually, Blanchett delivers the manifesto while directly looking into the camera, as if giving an intimate monologue intended to wow judges at a LaGuardia High School-hosted acting conference. The film, however, is not disinclined to hover above different sights and scenes while the actress confidently narrates. All the vignettes come together seamlessly; there is a profound sense of unity and artistic understanding.
Initially, Manifesto seems just as conceited and inaccessible as it sounds. It is, after all, doubtlessly hard to adjust to a movie that only contains materials you skimmed through that one time you took a philosophy class in college and decided it wasn’t for you. But some time into its surprisingly quick 96 minutes does it start to win us over. This slow but sure change in disposition comes the moment we begin realizing that what Rosefeldt and Blanchett are doing here is actually a great deal more subversive than we might have previously believed. (Though one still isn’t wrong to think a movie just containing philosophical text as its substance is subversive anyway.)
What the film’s director and star are aiming for, I think, is a complete deconstruction and mockery of arthouse cinema and philosophical texts as a whole. So often when we take on auteurist and/or academic works of film and philosophy, we’re led to believe that we’re intellectually inferior if we find ourselves unresponsive to what’s being placed in front of us. But the fact is is that sometimes arthouse cinema or a Voltaire text can be boring and decidedly vainglorious. And there’s nothing wrong with finding a particularly egotistical exercise on the part of say, Jean-Luc Godard, to be much less gratifying than a mindless popcorn movie. And one shouldn’t feel ashamed for enjoying Jackie Collins more than Jean-Paul Sartre.
Manifesto may not exactly be so unlike its vaguely masturbatory arthouse peers (it was originally conceived as a multi-screen film installation in 2015), but in its subtle mocking of self-important auteurism and philosophical aptitude does it turn out to be an engaging, unexpectedly funny piece worthy of comparisons to the great cinematic satirist Luis Buñuel.
What’s important here are not the philosophical texts themselves but the fashions in which they’re delivered and staged. We rarely pay attention to what’s being said because we’re so fascinated by the way Blanchett munches on these monologues. By the way Rosefeldt stages each delivery with enough absurdity to allow us to laugh at the pomposity of the materials on hand. These are not divine arguments to be made thornier by placement in pictureless, small-fonted textbooks; these are not set-in-stone pronunciamentos to abide by.
By taking so much hot air out of philosophy in general – and by placing these manifestos in so many aberrant contexts – Blanchett and Rosefeldt indirectly reason that all these words are perhaps meaningless. We should not fondle these texts: we should challenge them, laugh at them, and sometimes gawk at them. But we should also celebrate them for bringing such diverse ideas to an arguably futile existence.
Manifesto, then, is at once a celebration and a satirization by which we’re supposed to be confounded. Yet in embarking upon this seemingly limited experiment, Blanchett and Rosefeldt have created something curiously remarkable and daring – a tried and true avant garde fixture that might’ve better fit into the cinematic zeitgeist during the Warhol era. A single watch will suffice; we must let the chameleonic talents of Blanchett marinate, the unanticipated comic capabilities of Rosefeldt resonate. A