This week in my movie class, we saw a documentary titled “Dumbstruck”, about the world of ventriloquism.
For over 30 years, a small town in Kentucky has been the home to an annual convention of ventriloquists – some of whom perform professionally, some who aspire to that profession and others who simply enjoy it as a hobby. The documentary “Dumbstruck” follows the lives of five of these people:
- Kim is a stunning looking woman in her early thirties; a beauty contest winner, she discovered a talent for ventriloquism during her competition and now hopes to make her living as one, spending her life performing and sailing on cruise ships.
- Wilma is a lonely, unattractive 6’5” tall woman who has encountered many challenges in life. After a health scare, she taught herself ventriloquism as a pastime and has found herself something of a surrogate family within the ventriloquism community.
- Dylan is a shy teenage boy looking to find an identity – and he believes he may have found it in ventriloquism, using the character he has created as something of an alter ego who is cool, confident and funny. While his father wishes that his scrawny runt of a son would develop the same passion for motocross so they would have this to share, he also wonders why Dylan – who’s white – chose to have a ventriloquist dummy that’s black.
- Dan is a professional ventriloquist who’s spent many years working cruise ships – the goal every ventriloquist hopes to attain if they wish to make a living in this field. A talented veteran, Dan is very generous with his time, providing advice to those who wish to attain his level of success. But is his dedication going to cost him his marriage of 25 years?
- Terry is also a professional ventriloquist, but one who hasn’t quite hit it big yet – which is exactly why he’s now enrolled as a contestant on the TV show “America’s Got Talent”. Eventually winning the competition, Terry hits the big jackpot and signs a lucrative multi-year contract to perform regularly at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas.
Throughout the course of the movie, we are able to delve deeply into the personal lives of each of these individuals to learn more about them and understand exactly what it is about the craft of ventriloquism that interests them so much. Do the people who are shooting for ventriloquism as a career have enough talent to be able to pull it off? What deeper problems do they have for which they’re using ventriloquism to deal with? For the professionals, how much will success change them? And will those changes be for the better or worse?
I will gladly tell you upfront that neither is ventriloquism an interest of mine nor do I find most ventriloquists particularly entertaining – quite frankly, the majority of them tend to be just a little bit too bland for my own personal tastes. So, when I learned that our movie class was going to spend the evening watching a documentary on the subject, you can imagine how incredibly underwhelmed I felt. Having said that, however, I will tell you that without a doubt, this was one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve had the good fortune to see and therefore highly recommend it to you.
With equal parts of humor and sadness, we learn about how deeply fractured the personal lives of all of these people truly are and why being a ventriloquist was a compelling choice for them, either as a vocation or as an avocation. There is such an undercurrent of melancholy that pervades each individual’s story that I found myself strongly drawn in to each individual’s suffering, whether or not they were professionally successful. That’s because there are much bigger life lessons to be learned here – but whether or not each one of these ventriloquists are in a position to be able to actually accept learning those lessons is quite another matter entirely.
Following the screening, there was an interview with the documentary’s director, Mark Goffman. Goffman has worked as a writer/producer on a number of television shows, including – and perhaps, most notably -- “Law And Order: Special Victims Unit”. He got the idea for the documentary when he suddenly discovered that a close family member was very much into ventriloquism as a way of dealing with her painful shyness. Additionally, Goffman provided some information about some of the subjects of the movie that did not make the final cut; there were originally eight ventriloquists they were going to follow, but three of them were left out of the movie because the other five had more interesting stories. Interestingly, the movie is about an hour and a half long, but Goffman said that he actually shot two hours of film for every minute that wound up in the final version of the movie.