Although the art form dates back to religious customs of the Ancient Greeks, ventriloquism maintains a severely diminished status in the ranks of popular stagecraft. In fact, the ridicule of ventriloquists has even become something of a comedy/horror cliché in its own right — recall the infamous 1962 Twilight Zone episode “The Dummy”; the “East Coast-West Coast ventriloquist rivalry” skit from Mr. Show; Gabbo from The Simpsons; Franklin from Arrested Development. As for why the ventriloquist is so maligned, we can only venture to guess: that the dummy-gimmick restricts modern performers to the same dozen or so stale, vaudevillian chestnuts; that, as Rod Serling seemed to pick up on, ventriloquial figures with their caricaturish pedomorphic features tend to frighten more than they tickle; perhaps even the fact that among ventriloquists, especially those in this film, surprisingly little importance is placed upon the technical ability of ‘throwing’ one’s voice, emphasizing as they do the relationship between performer and puppet. So you can imagine the trepidations I felt about having agreed to cover Dumbstruck when I learned that among its subjects are amateur ventriloquists, and its setting is the annual Vent Haven ConVENTion in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, (apparently) known (to some) as “the ventriloquism capital of the world.”
As much as I hate to quote a film’s press notes, among those provided for Dumbstruck is the following statement: “…director Mark Goffman discovers extraordinary characters straight out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary…” which interests me as an extranarrative consideration, being that it vaguely recalls Tommy Wiseau’s claim (read: lie) that The Room is an intentional “black comedy.” It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Dumbstruck was originally intended as a serious (or perhaps remotely interesting) documentary on the subject of ventriloquism, whose makers either decided or were forced at the zero hour to fashion it into a sort of mockumentary. But since it’s not scripted and is a genuine document, the only way to characterize the resultant abomination is as a documentary in the style of a mockumentary. Here’s why it doesn’t work: the film adopts neither a serious nor humorous tone when young Dylan is introduced with a black “gangsta” doll that looks exactly like Whoopi Goldberg. The scene falls somewhere between the vaguely inappropriate and the banal; “ven” historians discussing the various methodologies of the craft is about as funny, interesting, or worthy of ridicule as a professional closet organizer’s pitch.
The question of what does or does not have kitsch appeal has been picked apart for decades, but one of the few constants may be, as Susan Sontag suggested, the idea of failure, and not just any kind of failure, but grand, sweeping failure. The hustling and scraping, very well-intentioned artists held up to (a sort of afterthought of) ridicule in Dumbstruck are not egregious failures. They’re fairly average devotees to the life of the entertainer; they can be seen to almost sweat pathological self-criticism and insecurity — nearly all of them uncomfortably resort (habitually!) to the old “my dummy is an alcoholic, yuk yuk” shtick when their prearranged material falters — even when they’re only in the society of respectful peers. Further unintentional pathos exploited to inefficient comedic effect abound in the form of the subjects’ often bittersweet back stories, like that of the six-and-a-half-foot-tall female security guard who started ventriloquizing with her jaw wired shut after a brutal beating. There is another art form that comes off looking a bit worse here; I won’t say which.