Despite its rich history, the art of ventriloquism falls somewhere between mime and balloon animal making on the respect scale. Maybe it's the cold, soul-sucking faces of the dummies themselves, or the fact that ventriloquism hasn't had much exposure beyond long-ago TV variety shows (hey, remember Willie Tyler & Lester?). With his documentary Dumbstruck, filmmaker Mark Goffman attempts to correct that sorry image by following five different ventriloquists who love what they do - hipness be damned.
The film begins and ends at the annual Vent Haven convention in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky - a colorful shindig with attendees young and old performing, exchanging tips, and generally having a ball in the way most family reunions turn out. Most are holding puppets, which might look strange individually but it comes across as strangely endearing en masse. It's in this bustling environment that we meet most of the performers that Dumbstruck ultimately centers on.
The people singled out in Dumbstruck range from hobbyists to full-blown professionals, united by a passion for what is admittedly an offbeat field. One of the select puppeteers who "made it" is Dan Horn, introduced via a clip from The Late Show with David Letterman. Dan has honed his technique over a span of several decades and is seen plying his trade on the cruise ship circuit, gigs which place a strain on his 25-year marriage. He also serves as a mentor to the other conventioneers, including former beauty queen Kim Yeager. The thirtyish Yeager makes a good living doing school shows in her native Ohio (she's seen enthralling a bunch of kids with a duck puppet), but she desperately wants to break into the cruise ship arena. She hopes that her puppet Bertha, a loud-mouthed character in the Madame (of Wayland Flowers &...) vein, will be her ticket to success. Her act is super polished yet lacking in laughs, however (Bertha would undergo a name and image change in the course of the film).
At Vent Haven, we also meet Dylan Burdette, a 13 year-old local boy who has enthusiastically taken to performing with his puppet Reggie, a trash-talking black kid. The way Dylan does Reggie's voice is impressive for a young kid, and the determined guy even manages to wrangle an audition with a local circus act manager. Through it all we witness the reactions of his supportive mom and perplexed dad, who wishes Dylan would take up a normal hobby like football (parental approval / disapproval is a recurring theme here). Another puppeteer, Wilma Swartz, seems to embody the "odd duck" nature of puppetry. A rural Pennsylvania resident, Wilma plies her trade at nursing homes, hospitals and churches. She is devoted to her craft (despite not being a polished or even funny performer), but the lack of funds leaves her behind on taxes and on the verge of being evicted from her home. The six foot-plus, muppet-like Wilma is one of the film's more fascinating characters; some of Dumbstruck's most surreal scenes involve her (including a weird jaunt in which she takes a dummy clothes shopping at Wal-Mart).
Dumbstruck's last performer seems to exist on an altogether separate plane from the others - Terry Fator, America's Got Talent winner turned Las Vegas headliner. Fator isn't seen interacting with his fellow puppeteers very often, but his story is intriguing enough to stand on its own. After years spent honing his craft plying the kiddie birthday circuit in his native Texas, he became an overnight sensation on America's Got Talent. The film follows Fator as he signs a five year, hundred million dollar (!) contract to perform at the Las Vegas Hilton, in a specially built theatre named after him. For any entertainer it's the equivalent of hitting the jackpot, but the gregarious Fator appears humbled by his incredible fortune. His interviews give the most insight about the craft of performing, sticking to your guns, overcoming bad family situations, and finally hitting upon that one elusive thing that brings success (in Fator's case, it was the combo of skilled puppetry and celebrity impersonation). The film concludes with Fator's enthusiastic first-time appearance at Vent Haven, to an adoring crowd of fellow oddballs.
Dumbstruck is a fascinating, if somewhat rambling, documentary about every artist's need to follow their bliss. Director Goffman adheres to the simple "film something and hope it sticks" rule of filmmaking, which in this case works surprisingly well. The main puppeteers don't appear to grow or gain much insight into what they do over the course of the film, which is frustrating in a way. All of them come across as appealing, friendly people who are easy to root for, however. One would have to have a heart of plastic (and maybe some creepy, googly eyes) to resist its charms.
Magnolia's DVD of Dumbstruck is supplied with English 5.1 and 2.0 digital soundtracks, both of which sound A-OK to these ears.
The 16x9 image on the film is typical of smaller budgeted, shot-on-videotape projects: clean and perfectly adequate. The secondary clips from TV appearances are not as high quality, but the film doesn't rely on them too often.
The DVD includes a lively audio commentary from Mark Goffman, his producer wife Lindsay Goffman, and director of photography George Reasner. The commentary includes the jaw-dropping factoid that the average cruise passenger list contains at least three ventriloquists wanting to get hired. Apparently Kim is not alone. In Behind the Puppet, a 16-minute featurette, Terry Fator discusses the origins of four of his characters in interesting detail. Two additional featurettes profile other puppeteers whose stories didn't make the final cut of the film, shot in similar, whimsical fashion.
Dumbstruck is oddly packaged to resemble a cheesy concert flick; in reality, it's a sweet, somewhat flawed look at a group of sweet, somewhat flawed oddballs with an addictive passion for puppetry. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.