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Ken McMullen's 'Ghost Dance'


pascale ogier in ghost dance

executive producers: Alan Fountain, Eckart Stein
producer: Ken McMullen
director: Ken McMullen
screenplay: Ken McMullen
photography: Peter Harvey
editor: Robert Hargreaves
design assistant: George Levantis
music: David Cunningham, Michael Giles, Jamie Muir
sound recording: Jean Bernard Thompson, John Ralph, Chris Osbourne
boat stunts: Andy Wilkinson

off screen voices:
Barbara Coles
Archie Poole
Ken McMullen
Michael Mellinger
Jacques Derrida

Marianne: Leonie Mellinger
Pascale: Pascale Ogier
George: Robbie Coltrane
himself: Jacques Derrida
salesman/guide: Dominique Pinon
action on water: Stuart Brisley
American Professor: John Annette

1983, GB, Looseyard for Channel 4
in collaboration with Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen

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Any synopsis gives inevitably a very selective account of Ghost Dance. In particular, it gives no sense of the importance of the various voices -sometimes associated with the film's characters, sometimes not - which are woven around the images and the 'action'. These voices are the most obvious (dis)embodiment of the film's concern with the role of ghosts in the electronic age', and also provide sub-texts which, by by introducing myth, history, dreams, ritual, etc. both shape and fragment the text. Perhaps the single most important observation inserted this way is the suggestion that at times when society is breaking up, there is a concomitant psychic fragmentation. Myths then spring up as a way of 'making historical sense of historical chaos'. Fragmentation invades every area of the film, from its mix of of present and post-industrial landscapes, to the division into chapters which bear no fixed relation to any narrative progression, to the treatment of character.

The latter is appropriately 'flexible'. A feeling expressed by a female voice-over of the self being split ('I and me became separate people') is diagnosed by a male voice as an effect of social decay. But the idea of identity fracturing is given positive force for the two female central characters, who gain strength and magical powers as their disparate personae come to complement each other. Elsewhere figures adopt roles according to the requirements of individual scenes, embodying Derrida's suggestion that 'memory is the past that never had the force of the present'. Thus the man who violently refuses to repurchase Pascale's electrical goods (explaining, in a short, sharp economics lesson that they are only worth something at the point where he originally sells them to her) later turns up as a guide delivering a lecture on the Paris Commune revolution. Similarly Robbie Coltrane, whose George is as stable as he is manic, is allowed a brief vignette as a photo-copier operator with a ghost in his machine which refuses to copy Pascale's thesis). And this flexibility likewise allows the figure of Derrida, playing himself, to function appropriately as a source of ideas and reflections, simultaneously within and outside the function.

With a narrative structure in which such elements can be played off against each other, there is an inevitable tendency for ideas to spill out of the film, in a 'playful' manner, rather than be developed to any degree. And occasionally, with casually offered lines such as 'History's just a point of view like anything else' there is a sense of glibness (particularly when coupled with a sometimes over-obvious use of metaphor). Also the predominant association of female characters with the eruption of repressed myths is a tricky area, leading perhaps into rather reactionary mysticism. But these doubts aside, and given the anti-pleasure strategies still so earnestly adopted by so much post-68 British independent cinema, Ghost Dance still has much to offer. In particular, the constant tempering of its overt intellectual content with a sense of atmosphere and humour, coupled with an excellent music track, makes this particular dance on capitalism's grave a highly enjoyable one.

Steve Jenkins
Monthly Film Bulletin
February 1984

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see also:
ghost dance -giles, muir, cunningham

ghost dance DVD