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Turning 13 Installation Screens of Cate Blanchett Into One Single-Screen Feature: Julian Rosefeldt on Manifesto

Cate Blanchett in Manifesto

A conservative mother leads her family in a lunchtime prayer on pop art. A tattooed punk screams about stridentism at a roomful of drugged-out partiers. A teacher stifles her students’ creativity with the harsh dictates of the Dogme 95 movement. Cate Blanchett, the preternatural shape-shifter who can slink into Bob Dylan or Katherine Hepburn with equal ease, embodies these and nine other souls in Manifesto, the art installation turned feature film from Julian Rosefeldt.

Manifesto premiered in 2015 as a 13-screen sensory wonder at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The installation asks viewers to move from screen to screen in a giant, cavernous space, where Blanchett’s many voices and accents reverberate throughout. A 10.5-minute short film loops on each cinema-sized screen. Blanchett anchors the shorts, her dialogue consisting almost entirely of words culled from artistic manifestos from the 20th century. The films explore the principles of dadaism, futurism, conceptual art and other movements with the youthful energy of a hopped-up undergrad with much to prove. I saw the installation twice this year at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Both times I left the space exhilarated, infected by the rhapsodic confidence of the manifesto writers.

Rosefeldt’s film and video work has screened in galleries across the world since the mid-1990s. He met Blanchett years ago at the opening of one his exhibits in Berlin, where the two soon agreed to collaborate on a project in the future. Following showings of the installation in Australia, Berlin, and New York, Rosefeldt premiered a 90-minute feature film version of Manifesto at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The German-born artist spoke with Filmmaker about the unique challenges of editing an immersive, 13-screen, short-film experience into a coherent (single-screen) feature, which opens for a two-week engagement at the Film Forum tomorrow.

Filmmaker: Can you discuss the process of retroactively turning Manifesto into a feature film?

Rosefeldt: I knew from the beginning that I would do a theatrical version. In order to finance the installation I needed to bring people on board who were more interested in a linear version. For example the BR, a German TV channel interested in screening art films on TV, wanted to support the installation, but they needed something they could broadcast. I knew that once I finished the installation I would have to make a film version of it. So Cate and I agreed that I would show it to her, and if she was OK with it we would go for it. For me Manifesto is a manifesto in and of itself. I want it to be out there. For it to be shown in various shapes is not a problem at all. I like the idea that now it reaches a completely different audience. I’m used to showing my work in the art context; I know that audience. Although even there, through Cate’s presence, we added another audience. And now again in the theatrical version we have another audience. It’s great.

Filmmaker: I noticed some new elements in the feature, like music cues, which were not in the installation. Were there any other elements that you added?

Rosefeldt: We shot the whole thing in 12 days, so we only had what we shot on those days. So in a way what you see in the filmic version is exactly what’s in the installation. It’s just a very different way of presentation. In the installation there are 13 screens. They come together every 10.5 minutes in a kind of choir moment. You can imagine that in an installation – one face per screen. She turns her face synchronized on all 12 screens toward you, breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to you. But instead of just talking, she is talking on one specific pitch level. Those 12 pitch tones were pre-arranged on the piano so I knew exactly what harmony would be brought into the space. That was a very strong emotional moment in the installation.

Filmmaker: I wondered how you were going to replicate that in the feature.

Rosefeldt: At the end of the filmic version we have a split screen where you see all 12 faces speaking on one pitch tone level. We had it as an epilogue at the end of the film. Once we finished the installation we thought it would be easy to edit a theatrical version. Originally we planned to do it in just two or three weeks, but we ended up needing almost a year. It was really, really different. The whole concept had to be broken apart, and we had to forget about what we did for the museum installation. We went back to the original material and started from scratch. The film functions more like a trip. You go from one character to the other almost seamlessly. Cate changes a lot, but the edits are very organic. We added music, which was composed for the film. We worked a lot on the credit design. We tried to find a structure that made sense. In the beginning we thought we had to put it all in chronological order, with each scene being the same length. But that was all wrong.

Filmmaker: That was one of the first things I noticed, that the scenes are in a different order. Can you talk about what motivated that decision?

Rosefeldt: There were different experiments we made. We also thought it would be good to have her appear speaking on screen at the beginning, but then we found that the longer sequences with voiceover slowed things down. So we put those voiceover sequences at the beginning. It was also clear that it would start with the fuse and the homeless man. And it was clear that futurism, which was translated into that high-speed trading room, was needed at the beginning of the film. At a certain point it was important to break it up and not just have those 12 chapters one after another – to intertwine those situations.

Filmmaker: Certainly viewers who see the feature will have a different experience than those of us who saw the exhibition. I’m curious what you think the viewer gains from seeing this material as a single-sitting feature film.

Rosefeldt: Generally I consider Manifesto to be a manifesto itself. I’m happy it’s out there in different shapes. It’s an adventure for me, because although I work with the apparatus of filmmaking, this is new territory. Something that I really like about it is that this specific film has a kind of rebellious energy in a context where narrative dominates, where stories are being told. I’m aware that the film will irritate a lot of people because it’s quite brainy, but I like that it questions the patterns of storytelling. I work a lot on the deconstruction of myth-making in cinema and reality-building on screen. I see this film as a deconstructor or a questioner of the narrative movie world.

Filmmaker: Everyone I’ve talked to seems to have a favorite scene. Which is your personal favorite?

Rosefeldt: I love them all; I love some even more. The funeral scene is fantastic. The news reader interviewing the reporter on conceptual art is fantastic.

Filmmaker: That’s my favorite one.

Rosefeldt: My very favorite, which is maybe a more modest one, is the teacher. I like that so much because it has great humor in it with the contradiction in the scene. On one side she quotes from Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Moviemaking – nothing is original, steal from everywhere, etc. And then she goes into [the rules of] Dogme 95. I find it very funny, but it’s also meaningful to me because it contains the recipe of my approach to Manifesto. Nothing is original, steal from everywhere. We have stolen from everywhere to build these text collages from the many, many manifestos I’ve read. The funniest one is definitely the news reader. We had very funny reactions to that at Sundance. A lot of people referred to the fake news, internet troll discussions we have now in Trump times.

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about the teacher scene. It’s the one that engages most with cinema. The scene pits two philosophies against each other. There’s realism, which seems embodied by Dogme 95, and stylization, which is embodied by Herzog’s quote on the “ecstatic truth.” Which of these creative impulses has a greater appeal to you as an artist?

Rosefeldt: Oh, definitely the Herzog. [laughs] He’s amazing because when you hear him talk he has the anger and arrogance – in the best way – of these youthful manifestos. I admire him for saying that stylization is not wrong. There’s nothing wrong with creating new realities.

Filmmaker: I’m curious about your thoughts on these manifestos. To me Cate’s character comes off as petulant or bratty in more than one of the scenes. I find the film inspiring, but I also don’t get the sense that you made Manifesto strictly to praise the manifestos that she’s quoting.

Rosefeldt: Certainly I admire two things in them, which they all share. Many of them were written when the writers were very young. I see them as the voice of a certain moment in life, when you are shaping your identity and are actually quite insecure. If you read them you might think that these people must have been very insecure. But knowing that they’re written in the early 20s of their lives, it makes them accessible in a very different way. I can identify with them as a moment in life when you are trying to find out where you belong and what you’re going to do.

The other big discovery was to see all these visual artists as great poets and writers. A lot of the writing is strictly very beautiful. By shaping these manifesto collages I was often paying more attention to the poetry of these texts than what the words actually say. In all this anger there’s so much beauty in the writing and the thinking. I think it stands as a lesson in political and artistic articulation. Even an angry outcry can be pure poetry, which is the opposite of what we have nowadays with all these stupid neo-populists all over the world.

I was also asked in Q&As if there’s a certain mockery in the film, because some things are really funny and it looks like I’m making fun of these important artists. Being an artist myself I know that humor is quite important to art. We often pretend to know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s all the opposite, of course, so there’s insecurity in the film. The humor I added by contextualizing these texts into contemporary, sometimes absurd situations. Once I separate the words from the art that they’re about, it makes them newly accessible. Were you irritated by this sub-tone of mockery?

Filmmaker: No, I wouldn’t say mockery. I knew the point wasn’t to simply valorize these people as great writers, but at the same time I was very inspired by their words. On the one hand I’m stirred by the manifestos, but on the other sometimes the tone in which they’re delivered makes them sound like self-righteous, drunken rants.

Rosefeldt: Yeah, I know what you mean. When I shaped these collages I was imagining a discussion among them. You know, like being a bit drunk and throwing around ideas, and so they don’t necessarily always agree on everything, but they share a certain spirit or belief system. In this belief system there can be contradictions, and that happens a lot in the scenes. When you watch the film, unlike when you watch the installation and you have a leaflet in your hand and know exactly who said what, all these texts are intertwined, and so you as the viewer have a lot of work to do.

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about that. The exhibit gives you time to read a program so you can tell which artistic movement each scene is engaging with, and which writers are quoted in each scene. In editing the feature, did you ever try to incorporate this information through titles or voiceover or some other technique?

Rosefeldt: Definitely, yes. We made a lot of experiments with this. We had in-between titles, announcing futurism or suprematism. We also experimented with inserting the names of the writers and the titles of their manifestos, but all that was wrong. It was stopping the flow of thoughts and images too much. So we decided to work with these opening credits where you have a flood of names. I think most viewers, even if right under the text it said “this was said by whoever” and “the manifesto is called whatever” and “it was written whenever,” would not really make something out of that during the watching of the film. So we thought it was much more interesting to have this accumulation of ideas at the very beginning in this energetic sequence of short edits, two per second, to have them like an intro.

Filmmaker: I read you only had 11 days to shoot with Cate Blanchett. Obviously you can do the math: 12 scenes, 11 days. That sounds pretty hectic. Which were the scenes that were the most difficult in this tight timeframe?

Rosefeldt: They were all extremely challenging. Cate didn’t have time to prepare for the texts so much, so we needed tricks to give her the texts during the scenes. We had hidden iPads on the plates when she was saying grace [in the pop art scene]. She also had to take on all these different accents, sometimes even two characters per day. She did the news reader and the homeless man in one day, for example, because we had to do it in one day because of our locations. You can imagine that this was an incredible tour-de-force for her. I can hardly imagine another actor being able to do this.

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