MILL VALLEY, Calif. -- "Ghostlight" is an "impressionistic" homage -- or at least so says director/co-writer/co-producer Christopher Herrmann -- to the late choreographer Martha Graham that hopes to appeal to modern-dance aficionados and Graham devotees. That's a small enough audience, but because the film's tone careens between camp and artiness and the acting and filmmaking are so amateurish, it's not clear whom this film, from Cowboy Pictures, will attract.
Herrmann, a confidant of Graham in her last years, recounts the preparations around her last work, "Phaedre", and uses actual members of the Graham company. The conceit is that the notoriously camera-shy Graham has agreed to allow a documentary filmmaker, Barbara Rosen (Ann Magnuson), to record "Phaedre" and its rehearsals. We watch Rosen deal with Graham's mood swings, impracticality over money manners and general fits of pique. The kicker, though, is that the diminutive Graham is played by a 6-foot-4-inch man in drag, choreographer Richard Move.
There's no evidence Move has ever taken an acting lesson. His Graham speaks in imperious bitch-camp drag-queen tones through clenched teeth and jutting chin without variation or humor. Move repeats Graham's actual words regarding her art and process, but his lack of ability turns these pronouncements into nonsense.
The lighting by cinematographer Tsuyoshi Kimoto gives the lie to the title with harsh, unnatural-looking shadows and bad lamp placement. The sound recording features a staple of early talkies: When actors turn their heads away from the mike, their voices fade.
It's hard to know what to make of the scene in which Graham and her busybody maid lie in bed, sipping champagne and watching "Murder, She Wrote". The film might succeed as camp if it had any energy. A flashback where Helen Keller visits the company is pure camp.
The only genuine craft is in the dancing. Move created the choreography in the style of Graham, though the individual dancers are ill served when they have to speak the inane dialogue. Graham was one of the great artists of the 20th century. You'd never know it from "Ghostlight".