Ghost Dance – Ken McMullen – A film in which artistic and cerbral theorising engages in convoluted battle with a shoestring budget to create a film that is often unintentionally (it would seem) hilarious, pretentious, fascinating, admirable and equally, fairly god-awful. Taking the notion of ‘ghosts’/ spectral haunting and memory as intimately linked with the birth of recording technology as its intellectual raison d’etre, the film focuses around the wandering antics of two women – one French and one English. For a film of such evidently academic/arthouse aspirations its portrayal of the two women is exuberantly insensitive. The French woman, named Pascal, is a cartoon encapsualtion of the vulnerable artiste: simultaneously troubled and enthralled by the introspection that motivates her vague journey for even more vague understanding. Meanwhile, the English woman represents a grounded force of logic, happy to chip in on the intellectual joy-ride, but essentialy there to anchor Pascal. One example of this - less than nuanced - pairing of national stereotypes, arises when Pascal stumbles in, still half asleep, to recall a dream she has just had. After much non-specific pontification, Pascal pauses, her expression wistfully lost in the mists of a half remembered dream. The English woman takes this reprieve as a cue for her to contribute: ‘It’s probably still damp in that room.’ With one swift aside of logical rumination, Ms. English extinguishes the wisping philosophy of the dream world, banished with her recklessly mundane observation. The French are dreamers, the English moan about the damp. It is a somewhat stunted, if not consistently entertaining, portrayal.
Then, just to really boost the curious credentials of this endearingly ambitious oddball-of-a-film, Derrida has a substantial cameo playing himself. Surely this overwrought soup of misguided intellect and avant-garde musings could ask for no more than this, Derrida, the enigmatic kingpin of all things insightfully complex…but no, there is more: a young Robby Coltrane (of later Hagrid fame) plays an aspiring drummer, who avidly accompanies radio broadcasts of the shipping news/and/or weather forecast with shuffling jazz percussion – in the flat above the two women. So, Robby Coltrane gleefully bashes his drum kit along to a small radio and Derrida offers his wisdom, while an early Brian Eno-esque, synth soundtrack blares away with sci-fi convictions. Naturally.
As an example of the laughably high-minded intent of the film:
Derrida, in prime ‘European Thinker’ mode, is first seen sipping from a coffee in a Parisian café and, for some reason (perhaps self awareness), blinking profusely. He wrinkles his forehead, as if nonchalantly engaged in minute to minute deconstruction, beneath his chin ruffles the carmine flourish of a cravat, he stares into the near empty espresso: he is alone. Our young french protagonist saunters in to join him; she looks pale and visibly distressed. Her wide eyes communicate a soulful Bambi existentialism, while her dishevelled demeanour and ethereal voice suggests the floating spirit of a bohemia. She is a student. Suffering essay troubles and misunderstood by the normative structures of the University’s conventional institution (it’s tiresome ‘marks,’ and its lecturers, so professionally equipped to neglect the real questions), alas she feels alone with her intellectual journey. Cue: Derrida, the fortuitous Yoda of real questions. And so:
‘What is the idea behind your idea?’
* Bambi considers*
‘The idea behind my idea is…
…That I have no idea’
Yoda takes a victory sip; the maverick deconstructor blows minds like this every day. Her vulnerable heart flutters, newly aflame with inspiration – the Tutor has spoken. Derrida’s later appearance involves a lengthy chat in which he verbalises the crux of the film’s own essay. Once transcribed, it makes for an effortless and genuine illustration of Derrida’s own questioning and fiercely intelligent thought – which, unencumbered by the film, endure far better:
Question to Derrida: Do you believe in ghosts?
‘That’s a difficult question. Firstly, you’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts. Here, the ghost is me. Since I’ve been asked to play myself…in a film which is more or less improvised…I feel as if I’m letting a ghost speak for me. Curiously, instead of playing myself…without knowing it…I let a ghost ventriloquize my words, or play my role…which is even more amusing. The cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms. That’s what I think the cinema is about, when it’s not boring. It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back. That’s what we’re doing now. Therefore, if I am a ghost, but believe I’m speaking with my own voice…it’s precisely because I believe it’s my own voice…that I allow it to be taken over by another voice. Not just any other voice, but that of my own ghosts. So ghosts do exist…And it’s the ghosts that will answer you. Perhaps they already have.
‘All this, it seems to me, has to do with an exchange between the art of cinema in its most original unedited form and an aspect of psychoanalysis. Cinema plus psychoanalysis equals the science of ghosts. You know that Freud, Freud had to deal all his life with ghosts [* telephone rings *] Now the telephone is the ghost
[* extended conversation mainly comprised of ‘yes’ about somebody attending a seminar*] Well, that was the phantom voice of someone I don’t know. He could have told me any old story. Someone who’s arrived from the USA and says he knows a friend of mine etc etc…Well, what Kafka says about correspondence, about letters …about epistolary communication….also applies to telephonic conversation. And I believe that modern developments in technology and telecommunication…instead of diminishing the realm of ghosts, as does any scientific or technical thought is leaving behind the age of ghosts as part of the feudal age…with its somewhat primitive technology, as a certain perinatal age. Whereas I believe that ghosts are part of the future and that the modern technology of images like cinematography and telecommunication enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us. In fact, its because I wished to tempt the ghosts out…that I agreed to appear in a film. It could perhaps offer both us and them the chance to evoke the ghosts: the ghost of Marx, the ghost of Freud, the ghost of Kafka, that American’s ghost [*referring to the telephone call*] even yours. I only met you this morning, but to me you’re already permeated by all sorts of phantom figures. Whether I believe in ghosts or not I say: “Long live the ghosts”
Nearing the end, there is a visually impressive sequence in what appears to be an abandoned car park or concrete warehouse. Its floor is flooded, creating a mirrored reflection of the vaulted ceiling and pillars – a man writhes around in the shallow water, his reflection and body suspended in the unreal dimensions of an optical illusion. It is in shots like this (later, a comparable sequence, in which papers are scattered across a beach and into the stormy waters of the sea) that the film finds a genuine visual equivalent to the mystery its intellectualised dialogue strives, so vainly, to achieve. These are the parts to the film that contain a sense of meaning and power that the rest of the film embarrassingly fluffs in its continual effort to attain such heights – isolated and slow tracking shots that evoke a more drizzly and modest Tarkovsky. Unfortunately elsewhere all that is evoked is the entertaining navel gazing of a student film – not to unfairly patronise (as I have definitely been guilty of adding to this much maligned and – thankfully, at least for my effort, little seen – genre…a friend and I made a film, whereby our greatest obstacle became the realisation that yes, yes the camera was out of battery) – but at least it balances this weakness with a precocious ambition that is both bizarre and entertaining. 6/10