DIRECTED BY: Nina Conti
FEATURING: Nina Conti
PLOT: Ventriloquist Nina Conti takes the dummies of her recently deceased mentor Ken Campbell to donate them to Vent Haven, a museum in Kentucky she conceives of as a “graveyard for puppets of dead ventriloquists.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This elegy-cum-confessional disguised as a kooky documentary about ventriloquism was just unique and offbeat enough to make it onto our radar screen, but not quite bewildering enough to challenge for a spot on a list of the weirdest movies of all time.
COMMENTS: Ventriloquist’s dummies have always been a bit creepy: Nina Conti (speaking, as she so often does, through the fuzzy mouth of her main puppet Monkey) describes a freckled, arch-eyebrowed doll, one of the six dummies she inherits from her deceased mentor, as “the archetypal cliché of a horror movie ventriloquist’s mannequin.” Her Master’s Voice suggests that the people sticking their hands inside these uncanny puppets might be a bit creepy, too. After all, they’re entertainers who deliberately court schizophrenia, seeking to bring alternate personalities to life through inanimate objects. Many of the ridiculously talented puppeteers Conti interviews at the World Ventriloquist ConVENTion (groan) admit to being shy children who took to speaking through dummies in order to make antisocial, hostile or naughty observations while distancing themselves from outrageous statements. In Her Master’s Voice Conti takes that notion a step further: she speaks through the dummies Ken Campbell bequeathed her to express her grief over the loss of her mentor, and to work through her own flagging enthusiasm for the dying art form of ventriloquism (at one point, as they lie in bed together, Monkey asks her, “talking in an empty room in the middle of the night in Kentucky to an imaginary monkey—you don’t like it anymore?”) She turns on the camera and psychoanalyzes herself via Campbell’s old mannequins—a dimwitted owl, a horny bulldog, a kindly granny and a bushy eyed puppet of Ken himself—who both interrogate her and say the things that she’s too shy to say in her own voice. One night, when she’s had too much to drink, she turns on the camera and sits down with that archetypal horror movie dummy, who accuses her of conducting “psychic necrophilia” with Campbell’s memory and attacks her for turning “a purported tribute into a tart’s holiday!” With a disturbed frown, she flings the doll away. Via her psychotic conversation with the puppets, Conti makes some shocking confessions about herself and her relationship with Campbell. She seems legitimately surprised and saddened by the admissions the dummies elicit from her. This confessional technique makes for a melancholy movie, and the personal nature of the revelations give it a raw and uncomfortably voyeuristic edge, but the documentary is interspersed with silly comic performances that lighten the mood: we see Conti onstage performing her act, and she even stages the death of Monkey just to see how she would feel living without him (the results aren’t pretty). The resulting patchwork of a home movie is an odd egg, both formally and tonally, but it’s ultimately a successful experiment. It serves as a fine eulogy for her dead master, but it’s more interesting when Conti’s brutal honesty gives us a peek at the troubled artist behind the cute puppet. Given what the film tells us about Campbell’s talent for nurturing others talents, we suspect he would consider the fact that his protégé steals the spotlight from him in his eulogy film to be the best tribute he could ask for.
Her Master’s Voice was executive produced by mockumentary specialist Christopher Guest. “I don’t know if this story I want to tell you is factual because by its very nature it demands a certain addition to reality,” says Conti at the beginning of the film, but she adds “there are no lies, it all happened.” The DVD includes extended scenes that did not make it into the 64 minute film and a commentary by Conti (helped out by Monkey, naturally).