Several times during Nina Conti’s 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 it’s because being a truly funny comedian isn’t 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 Master’s Voice will change any naysayers’ minds on the importance of ventriloquism as an art. The back of the box synopsis for Her Master’s Voice couldn’t sound more offbeat and intriguing, even with merely sixty-four minutes of runtime. After creative genius Ken Campbell’s 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 “Vent Haven,” 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 “docu-mockumentary,” but this has more to do with Christopher Guest’s executive producer credit than a lack of serious treatment given to the subjects. (You may recall seeing Conti and Monk briefly in Guest’s For Your Consideration.) As it is, I can’t 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 I’d guarantee the film’s funniest bits, particularly when Conti is performing for an audience, will be forgotten in place of the subtlety of Conti’s 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 Campbell’s 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 Campbell’s 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, it’s as if she’s still living in his shadow, held back from greatness by a fear of surpassing he who made her what she is. That’s 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 Johnson’s 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? I’m 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 doesn’t hurt that her wit in informed by her British upbringing.
Inspiring and never patronizing, Her Master’s 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 Conti’s work before this viewing, but I am determined to keep up with it in the future. Jeff Dunham can suck a fat one…on a stick. Luckily, this disc doesn’t 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 isn’t 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 don’t seem as long.
Two scenes in the film are shown in their extended forms. One is just more of Monk’s interview with Conti, and the other is “Séance,” 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 Campbell’s 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 I’ve 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 Master’s Voice proves that Nina Conti’s voice should be heard by everyone.
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