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DOXA Festival review: Ghost Ship

An essay film spinning on the triple axis of F.W. Murnau, David Foster Wallace, and Florence Anne Balcombe, Ghost Ship is equal parts realist documentary, film history, and commentary on the nature of cinema itself. Divided into sections via literary subheadings (i.e. Coleridge: “As idle as a painted ship/upon a painted ocean;” Bram Stoker: “darkness, creeping wood, roaring waves,” and  David Foster Wallace: “A supposedly fun thing…”), Ghost Ship is a collage of cinema and marginalia writ large. A documentary mirroring Wallace’s famous essay on cruise ships gives way to a phantasmagoric close-up of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and the life of Florence Anne Balcombe – Bram Stoker’s wife – who attempted to destroy all copies of Murnau’s work for infringing on her husband’s copyright.

The film seems to lose itself amidst the fog of history, taking the audience along to navigate the troubled waters ahead. It’s rare for a film to achieve the feeling of self-discovery as it progresses, but Ghost Ship is a constant surprise to itself as well as its audience. From soundwaves and voice-overs, to chapters of Dracula overlaid in text onscreen, to whole segments of Nosferatu playing; from the documentary of an eerie, sparsely-populated cruise ship to a puppet show of the courtship between Oscar Wilde and Florence Balcombe, one is never sure what is next in store.

Strange stories and trivia are proffered up to the viewer, either sans immediate visual context (a recounting of the mysterious disappearance of the Lyubovy Orlova in 2013), or shown in full sunlight (the wonderfully strange tale of Murnau’s skull stolen from his grave in 2015), including the origins of tourist cruises and the chromatic tinting of silent films. Stories wrapped in stories, mummified and then exhumed by Almandoz, who creates by discovering, and vice versa. It’s thrilling to see a film take shape before your eyes, with the dawning realization that it’s not a film you’ve seen before.

While Ghost Ship is Koldo Almandoz’s first feature, yet it feels almost wrong to designate it under such a label. It’s a film which is neither traditional short nor traditional feature, a shadow of both which dances mischievously about them both like Peter Pan’s impish shadow.  Almandoz is creating, remixing, and stealing from the past before him, and Ghost Ship is, in a manner of speaking, a reflection of cinema itself as vampyric ouroboros; a feeding off of living beings, off of living history and art, and ultimately even itself, in order to feed an undead desire to be frozen in time – the spectre of eternal youth, the never-ending story.

7/10

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