Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
I first became aware of Nina Conti when she appeared on a live episode of WTF from Montreal and was so charmingly awkward and awkwardly charming that the entire audience (and host Marc Maron) seemed to fall in love with her simultaneously. This despite Conti’s strange and unfortunate affliction: She’s a professional ventriloquist.
At the risk of making a blanket generalization, people who devote their lives to pretending they’re having animated, ostensibly comic conversations with carved and painted blocks of wood tend to be seen as losers, weirdoes, lifelong virgins, and shut-ins. Ventriloquism is generally considered both a much-maligned and increasingly anachronistic facet of show business and a socially sanctioned form of mental illness, where the deeply unhinged are rewarded for arguing passionately with imaginary friends despite being adults.
Conti does not fit the stereotype of a professional ventriloquist, in the sense that she doesn’t seem like a cheeseball, a loser, or someone who spent her entire adolescence holed up in her bedroom attempting to master the dark art of imbuing wooden dolls with the illusion of sentience. On the contrary, Conti is not only the daughter of a successful character actor (Tom Conti), but also adorable, smart, and quirky in a manner that would suggest the cartoon ebullience of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, if the defining characteristic of Manic Pixie Dream Girls wasn’t the absence of an inner life. The defining characteristic of Conti’s life and career seems to be an inner life so rich, complicated, and overwhelming that it spills over into her personal life and essentially constitutes her act.
Conti’s comedy—and it almost feels reductive to even call it comedy—has a lot more in common with the live-wire eccentricity of Maria Bamford than the lazy hackwork of your Jeff Dunhams and your Willie Tyler and Lesters. Rather than using her puppet sidekicks as partners in a vaudevillian double-act, Conti uses her dummies—most notably a dour and severe monkey named Monk—as physical manifestations of her raging id and the complicated, often sad and doubting voices inside her head. For Conti, ventriloquism is therapy, a way of understanding herself and her fractured psyche, though it’s not always clear who’s the client and who’s the therapist in this scenario.
Nina Conti: Her Master’s Voice is an unexpectedly shattering, totally unique semi-documentary. Written by, directed by, and starring Conti and executive-produced by Christopher Guest, the film takes place in the long shadow of grief left by the death of Ken Campbell, a caterpillar-browed, larger-than-life legend of the underground British theatrical world. Campbell was Conti’s lover, mentor, and inspiration, despite a 34-year age gap between the 60-year-old Campbell and his 26-year-old protégé.
The film’s seemingly precious yet ultimately successful conceit finds Conti making a pilgrimage to Kentucky to attend an annual ventriloquist convention and sacrifice a dummy to Venthaven, a semi-mythic resting place for the retired dummies of legendary ventriloquists. Conti brings with her a number of Campbell’s puppets, as well as a dummy representing her ex-lover, massive eyebrows and all. Then again, it seems wrong to even use a word like “ex” when describing Campbell and Conti’s relationship. Their love seems contemporary, vibrant, and alive, even if Campbell is not.
Conti rather tellingly does not bring her husband on what is essentially an epic final valentine and tribute to an ex-lover whose absence informs every frame of the movie. But Conti’s husband is the secret hero of Her Master’s Voice. It’s a testament to how much he loves and respects his wife that he co-signs a trip and a movie that are huge tributes to a former lover who was a towering figure in life and has only grown in stature and significance in death. I cannot imagine how he was not overcome with jealousy and resentment—though this is Conti’s movie and she can obviously shape and mold this material she sees fit, so it’s entirely possible that her husband had more problems with her epic voyage than the film suggests.
Her Master’s Voice follows Conti as she travels to Kentucky and tries to ascertain whether she wants to continue her career as a ventriloquist or if she wants to let that curious sideline die alongside the giant of the theatrical world who inspired it. Her Master’s Voice is blessed with an almost uncomfortable, unbearable intimacy, as the shy but resilient and quietly charismatic Conti engages in a psychological striptease. She lays everything bare: her insecurities and anxieties regarding a relationship that clearly both exhilarated and terrified her, and the experience of getting her signature puppet almost to the day she would have given birth to a child, had she not gotten an abortion instead.
Through it all, the Campbell dummy watches over Conti, daring her to bring him to life and resurrect for even a little while the bond that continues to define her life, even though he is gone and she has clearly moved on and gotten married. That is the ultimate challenge: to find the words to convey what Campbell meant to her, and have one final conversation with her creative and personal hero, albeit with a wooden proxy rather than the real thing.
In a Guardian interview to promote the film, Conti is quoted as saying, “I almost feel as if it’s not in the film how much I miss Ken [Campbell].” That’s not a knock on the film, but rather a testament to the power and profundity of a bond so strong that no mere movie could possibly capture its full richness, even a film as powerful and haunting as this. Her Master’s Voice begins on a fragile, melancholy note and gains in power until it’s easily the most heartbreaking, romantic, and profound film about ventriloquism ever made. That’s ultimately because it’s less about ventriloquism and the curious community it engenders than it is about the human need for connection, identity, and creativity, and those needs’ power to transcend death.
Just how bad is it? It’s actually pretty great.