Ken McMullen was, along with Derek Jarman, Chris Petit, Peter Greenaway et al, part of a little wave of 1980s experimental British directors who briefly found a wider audience. I've often run into other people who, like me, remember Ghost Dance fondly, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out that it's been released on DVD.
In some respects Ghost Dance is a flawed film. British & American attempts to imitate Godard are always awkward & this film falls into that derivative trap with its titled pseudo-analytical sections, its weak aphoristic dialogue, its voice-over commentary largely made up of fragmented quotes from learned books taken out of context and so on. Or, as Leonie Mellinger quips to Pascale Ogier at one point "yes but it sounds better with a French accent"!
However the strengths of Ghost Dance more than compensate. McMullen has an incredible visual sense, not only for individual images but for structuring the film around recurring images. The soundtrack is also brilliant (music by David Cunningham, Jamie Muir & Michael Giles). The images & music generally say everything much more eloquently than the dialogue. The final almost wordless 20 minutes, featuring a performance-art piece by Stuart Brisley (falling about on the waterlogged floor of a warehouse) followed by Mellinger burying photographs of images from the film in the sand to be washed away by the incoming sea, achieves a rare level of haunting cinematic poetry. The film is also blessed with an amazing cast - apart from the two leads, there are great turns from Robbie Coltrane & Dominique Pinon both giving the film some much needed humour & guts.
However the real star is undoubtedly Jacques Derrida, who plays himself but, as he points out, since this a film he is necessarily playing himself as a ghost. Derrida outlines what the film is really about: ghosts as figures generated by processes of memory, mourning and death - and how the rise of technological images & mediation is leading to a proliferation of ghosts. Of course all this means that the film has, nearly thirty years on, itself become a ghostly artifact. Ogier tragically died just after the film was completed. Derrida died recently. The film is filled with ghostly apparitions. More generally the film captures some kind of essence of the long lost early 1980s (the real 1980s not the cartoon one). Ghost Dance immediately takes this viewer back to the 1980s in a way all these recent "Joy Division" type films could never do.
So, a flawed, sometimes irritating film, but a unique & often extraordinary one.
The DVD has some of the best extras I've ever seen - McMullen conducts intelligent interviews with several of those involved with the film & there are pieces on the film by not one but TWO philosophers! - one French & one Columbian.