Nina Conti - A Ventriloquist's Story: Her Master's Voice
Several times during Nina Contiís class act documentary, ventriloquism is called out as a cause for derision within audiences around the globe. It is often considered a relic in the comedy world, with few celebrated stars among its untold number of performers. I feel itís because being a truly funny comedian isnít inherent in mastering the craft, but any other genre outlet for the talent is nearly non-existent. As with all forms of creativity, excellence is diluted by mediocrity, and the masses form their opinions based on stereotype. Read my unmoving lips: Nina Conti, and her mentor Ken Campbell, are purveyors of that excellence, and Her Masterís Voice will change any naysayersí minds on the importance of ventriloquism as an art.
The back of the box synopsis for Her Masterís Voice couldnít sound more offbeat and intriguing, even with merely sixty-four minutes of runtime. After creative genius Ken Campbellís death, his sizeable collection of ventriloquist dummies is sent to Conti, his adoring apprentice in the craft, just as she is beginning to reconsider her dedication to her career. Her intention is to donate one of his more treasured pieces to ďVent Haven,Ē a Kentucky museum that preserves the puppets of deceased ventriloquists, while also performing with many others at the Vent Haven ConVENTion. She is accompanied on this soul-searching journey by Monk, a monkey whose depressed repression belies his simple furry puppet exterior.
The film is called a ďdocu-mockumentary,Ē but this has more to do with Christopher Guestís executive producer credit than a lack of serious treatment given to the subjects. (You may recall seeing Conti and Monk briefly in Guestís For Your Consideration.) As it is, I canít tell if anything shown is fabricated beyond the onscreen context. Obviously anything involving someone psycho-analyzing themselves using a fake voice and a hand-stuffed monkey, all within a film exploring comedic entertainment, almost requires less-than-serious descriptions. But Iíd guarantee the filmís funniest bits, particularly when Conti is performing for an audience, will be forgotten in place of the subtlety of Contiís emotional fidelity for Campbell, and the constant sincerity and reverence she shows for everyone around her. This reverence is perhaps most exemplified in the delicacy of the scenes she shares with Campbellís elderly female puppet, Gertrude Stein, whom Conti adopts as her Gran. The personal celebration of an old woman puppet taking her first swim in a pool, taken only at its word, does not convey the humbling poignancy the scene manages to deliver.
A head on a stick--itself a likeness of Campbellís furry-browed face- sits atop a pair of blown-up beach balls dressed in clothes. With this, and several pieces of footage shot over the years, Campbell becomes as much of a character as Conti, quietly sitting in the background while she experiments with his other puppets and contemplates her state of mind. Throughout the film, itís as if sheís still living in his shadow, held back from greatness by a fear of surpassing he who made her what she is. Thatís probably reading too far into it, as her professional and internationally acclaimed career is more sure-footed.
In almost any piece of fiction, a ventriloquist convention/museum would be treated with ridicule, stocked full of unenviable weirdoes. Here, the art form is lauded, championed by interesting and amusing performers from all walks of life, and with all forms of colorful handheld addendums. A handful of performers are interviewed, and each offers advice or teaches a technique needed to elevate the craft. For example, Kevin Johnsonís ability to bifurcate, using his tongue and lips to do different things, is amazing and unsettling.
Do I think those other ventriloquists would make as successful a feature as Conti did here? Iím not sure. Her genuine personality, as well as her ability to truly extend that persona into these puppets, in such a way that they appear to be fleshed out acquaintances unconnected to her body, is unique. It reads as an act, but one born from conversations between friends, rather than one mind developing everything. It doesnít hurt that her wit in informed by her British upbringing.
Inspiring and never patronizing, Her Masterís Voice is a sometimes silly, but more often poetic peek into a subculture that gets put into a corner more often than it deserves. The last fifteen minutes alone are as funny and touching as anything I can immediately think of. I knew very little of Contiís work before this viewing, but I am determined to keep up with it in the future. Jeff Dunham can suck a fat oneÖon a stick.
Luckily, this disc doesnít stop at the feature alone. Conti and Monk provide an insightful commentary, where Monk often digresses into a series of complaints about things. The insight isnít about the film itself as much as it is a further look into Conti as a person. And at only an hour, the sporadic silences donít seem as long.
Two scenes in the film are shown in their extended forms. One is just more of Monkís interview with Conti, and the other is ďSťance,Ē an eleven-minute shot of Conti in her hotel bed, carrying on a drawn out conversation with herself that eventually leads to an attempt to summon Campbellís voices through his puppets, or something like that. Yes, it does momentarily dip into the waters of insanity.
Finally, and thankfully, her entire twenty-minute convention performance is included. This darkly brilliant act is the refreshing jolt that ventriloquism needs, and ends with a fourth wall-breaking bit that to me is as clever as any Iíve seen.
Should this DVD not get a wide enough release that places it in stores near you, take to shopping online and add it to your collection. As both a documentary and a performance piece, Her Masterís Voice proves that Nina Contiís voice should be heard by everyone.
Reviewed By: Nick Venable
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