Review: ‘Ghostlight’

Very odd camp tribute-cum-biopic on Martha Graham, directed and co-written by Christopher Herrmann, the modern dance icon's print biographer, close friend and confidante. Slick yet strangely rudderless, pic sounds interesting in description but lacks fascination in actual viewing. Cowboy has taken distribution, with gay auds in mind.

Very odd camp tribute-cum-biopic on Martha Graham — played by a 6’4″ professional NYC club scene drag queen — is directed and co-written by Christopher Herrmann, the modern dance icon’s print biographer, close friend and confidante in years just before her 1991 death. No doubt his personal experiences would have made for a fun, gossipy nonfiction effort. Instead, eccentric pic awkwardly invents an exasperated fictional documentary filmmaker recording the tempestuous Graham at work. Neither fish nor fowl, slick yet strangely rudderless “Ghostlight” sounds interesting in description but lacks fascination in actual viewing. Cowboy Pictures has taken the plunge distribution-wise, presumably with gay auds in mind.

Hazy script focuses upon harried filmmaker Barbara Rosen’s (Ann Magnuson) attempts to shoot a behind-the-scenes docu on Graham, her unkind teacher during her dance student days long past. As impersonated by Richard Move here, the choreographer is an imperious, lacquered (sometimes liquored), mercurial sort who stage manages the film crew, then impulsively bans them from rehearsals for “Phaedra’s Dream” — a new piece in which Graham will star, despite her considerably advanced age. Natch, pic ends with its triumphant 1983 premiere.

Until then, Graham wafts around in turbans, caftans and war-paint makeup, gifting Rosen with pearly anecdotes from her self-described “life of divine turbulence,” throwing tantrums at her dancers and administrative staff. There’s a stab at suspense when company finances grow low enough to threaten its dissolution — a crisis Graham refuses to deal with, and which ultimately the screen docmeister rescues by raising a large anonymous donation.

There are B&W fantasy sequences; weird flashbacks to the subject’s single failed marriage and her bizarre friendship with Helen Keller; gratuitous cameos by choreographer Mark Morris and pop vocalist Deborah Harry as themselves; plus actors standing in for Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Agnes DeMille, Eric Hawkins, and so forth. Graham’s fabled, Earth Mother-ish notions about technique are most memorably distilled when she snaps “You must dance from your vagina!”

That it all fails to gel can’t be blamed on cast or crew. Location-shot features design input from several who actually worked with Graham in later years; an original orchestral score played by the Czech Philharmonic; dancers from the (still extant) Graham Co., and other high-end attributes.

Magnuson looks understandably bewildered, while Move’s glacial Graham is a sometimes entertaining stunt that pic just isn’t sure what to do with. Tone wavers timorously between parody and seriousness, while Herrmann’s filmmaking experience shows despite pro collaborators. Even dance segs cry for stronger cinematic presentation, and everything else smacks of muddy intentions that couldn’t/didn’t get resolved in the editing room. Results are not unwatchable, but provide very little joy given package’s sheer idiosyncrasy.

Tech aspects range from solid to spotty, suggesting a long and difficult postprod process.

Ghostlight

Production

A Cowboy Pictures release of a MannicMedia production. Produced by Penny Fearon, Christopher Herrmann, Richard Move. Executive producer, Herrmann. Co-producer, Stephen Kijak. Directed by Christopher Herrmann. Screenplay, Penny Fearon, Herrmann, Richard Move.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Tsuyoshi Kimoto; editor, James Lyons; music, John Califra; production designer, Christopher Boyd; costume designer, Pilar Limosner; sound (Dolby SR), Aaron Saddler; assistant director, Lauren Thompson; casting, Cyndy Fugikawa. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 6, 2003. Running time: 80 MIN. Principal Dancers: Reid Hutchins, Tres Bien Pollard, Jennifer Binford, Amy Piantaggini.

With

Martha Graham - Richard Move Barbara Rosen - Ann Magnuson Alex - Isaac Mizrahi James - Erick Kastel Himself - Mark Morris Herself - Deborah Harry Peggy - Gila Zalon Erick Hawkins - Rob Besserer Helen Keller - Maryette Charlton Linda - Kittson O'Neill Isamu Noguchi - Ernest Abuba
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