There is definitely something going on with puppetry lately, as Mark Goffman’s “Dumbstruck” is the third documentary I’ve seen about a segment of the art form in six months. It’s also the first to officially hit cinemas, since it debuted in Atlanta last Friday and continues a limited expansion this weekend in NYC and DC. (for further openings, head to the film’s Facebook page). Compared to the others — Sundance hit “Being Elmo” and underrated DOC NYC selection “Puppet” (both of which play IFFBoston next week) — the form and subject matter of “Dumbstruck” is quite basic and specialized. It tackles the world of ventriloquism from a very communal center, and its full appreciation is likely limited to that same tight community and fanbase.
This is kind of a shame, because dummies have in recent years seemed a sort of joke within the craft of puppetry. Sure, Jeff Dunham is very popular and Terry Fator (who is prominently showcased in “Dumbstruck”) hit the jackpot with his “America’s Got Talent” win. But look how ventriloquism is treated in the comedy “Dinner for Schmucks,” as something to be laughed at rather than with, or the recent episode of “My Strange Addiction” about a woman who can’t be social without her puppet. Ventriloquism is certainly on the low-brow end of the spectrum of puppetry as well as of stand-up comedy and stage performance in general, and maybe the fact that it’s spread over multiple art forms contributes to its misunderstood and stigmatized identity, but then, all the more reason it deserves a more exuberant documentary than what we have here.
Goffman, a TV writer and producer who has worked on “The West Wing” and “Law and Order: SVU,” directs with a bare, reality show aesthetic, though unlike many TV series his film is clearly from a more fascinated and respectful perspective. “Dumbstruck” begins and ends with bookending visits to the annual Vent Haven ConVENTion of ventriloquists held in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, and in between follows five selected characters over the course of a year. Representing a scope of attendees, the subjects range from a very young novice talent to a successful veteran of the comedy and cruise ship circuits. And their narratives veer in quite different directions with some (Fator, obviously) rising in the field and others struggling more than ever before, particularly in very personal matters. The most interesting story might be the one involving the extent of support found among the “vent” community when a fellow performer is in need, and there are plenty of scenes in each character’s narrative that illustrate the bonds and guidance between the different levels of talent and professional status.
That’s fine and fitting to the minor appeal of the documentary. I’m certain that every attendee of Vent Haven will buy a copy of the DVD. And I hope for the film’s sake that other more isolated ventriloquism fans and artists head out to see it. There’s nothing wrong with a film being for a specific base audience, yet after seeing those other puppetry docs, I want more, as an outsider. Constance Mark’s “Being Elmo” is a total fluff piece but it’s also a compelling and crowd-pleasing double biopic on both the fictional “Sesame Street” star and his handler, Kevin Clash. David Soll’s “Puppet,” which likely has been less seen and celebrated because it centrally focuses on higher-brow puppetry, is not the greatest of these films because of its main subject matter being more sophisticated. It’s for the way it explores the whole history, culture, critical stigma, contemporary renaissance and the levels of popularity for different types of puppetry that make it such a terrific work, comparatively.
I’m not saying “Dumbstruck” needs some expert testimonials from doctors explaining the psychology of ventriloquism’s appeal to socially awkward personalities, which is clearly not the entire make up of the community. But I wouldn’t mind some finer details on the craft itself as well as more address of both the stigma and the niche popularity of ventriloquism outside of a few disapproving family member interviews and a quick look at the production of Fator’s Las Vegas show. I’m left still wondering exactly why it’s a less respected art and why everyone was so shocked that a ventriloquist could win a hugely popular TV talent show. And why and how did that happen? Is there really room for others to be hopeful, or was it a fluke? Obviously there’s the simple matter of some artists being funnier and/or more skilled than others, but there’s also a cultural consideration to be examined regarding this subject. And speaking of funny, is there any room for non-comedic ventriloquism?
There’s nothing to gain from this film outside of expected proof of successes and failures and the awareness of the ventriloquism community. There’s not a whole lot of context or content driving anyone to have a new appreciation or fondness for the craft or any specific performers. Perhaps regular attendees of the ConVENTion will be happy their event likely won’t get bigger as a result of “Dumbstruck.” In that case, it’s a perfectly insulated little documentary for its demographic.