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Internationally acclaimed ventriloquist Nina Conti, takes the bereaved puppets of her mentor and erstwhile lover Ken Campbell on a pilgrimage to 'Venthaven' the resting place for puppets of dead ventriloquists. She gets to know her latex and wooden travelling partners along the way, and with them deconstructs herself and her lost love in this ventriloquial docu-mocumentary requiem. Ken Campbell was a hugely respected maverick of the British Theatre, an eccentric genius who would snort out forgotten artforms. Nina was his prodigy in ventriloquism and has been said to have reinvented the artform. This film is truly unique in genre and style. No one has seen ventriloquism like this before. Written by
"Problems of the Self" Examined by Artificial Others
While my ventriloquism-loving friends either laughed at the crudeness of Jeff Dunham or sang along with Terry Fator, I found myself pursuing the sheer quirkiness that is Nina Conti. Despite having released at least three shows on DVD, being featured in a Christopher Guest film, and being a regular both at comedy shows and in Youtube clips, true fame has eluded Conti, though I'm hopeful that her first solo film project here will give her greater North American recognition. As is her style, Conti uses her documentary to balance spontaneous humor and genuine human emotion for a sometimes-uncomfortable, always-entertaining tribute to her deceased mentor and spiritual center of the piece, theater maverick Ken Campbell.
The gist of the "story" here is that Conti, feeling uncertain about her future as a performing ventriloquist and saddened by the death of Campbell, considers abandoning the art but first commits herself to visiting an international ventriloquists' convention in Kentucky. With her, she brings her own puppet (Monkey) along, as well as the puppets willed to her by Campbell - "uniquely bereaved objects" whom she tries to help reclaim their lost voices - one of which will finding a resting place at the Vent Haven museum.
As much as I had been hoping to give this film a perfect score, a couple issues keep me from doing so. The first of these is the film's runtime: playing only for a slim sixty minutes, the movie mostly manages to avoid pacing problems until the very end, where its conclusion is inharmoniously rushed after the rest of the picture has been comfortably reflective. My second complaint is more of a personal one: people who don't follow Nina online will probably be immune to this, but fact is that I had already seen half of the movie's most powerful scenes before I had even bought it, as teasers. The episode wherein "Granny" takes a swim and when Nina has a "conversation" with Ken Campbell in puppet form are as simultaneously sweet and unnerving as anything, but there are only two or three other scenes of approximate gravity in the film, making it feel like I've been partially spoiled.
Which, of course, is not to say that even the non-knockout scenes of the film aren't fun to watch. Newcomers to Conti's comedy style may do well to catch one or two of her online clips before submerging themselves in this piece, just to get a taste, but by and large it's accessible if only for its intrigue. Not only has Nina got the technical aspects of ventriloquism down pat, but her ability to create a rapport with her characters is second to none: though her material is often deconstructive, it rarely feels like she's only talking to herself, and her puppets are made to feel more aware and imbued with emotion than most others. Humor-wise, documentaries like this may be the best portal for Conti's material: judging by some of the feedback I've read, a few people don't "get" Nina's style, which may have to do with the fact that her comedy lies in how she and a character go about addressing a topic instead of setting up and delivering blatant jokes, and this is a perfect match for this kind of film, for the naturalness of her delivery and the flow of the movie makes it hard to imagine that anything you see was filmed more than once. Because Conti's film is a journey about a comedic ventriloquist and not an exhibition by a comedian who happens to use ventriloquism to get a laugh, the movie feels more like a genuine documentary than a show.
Technically, the film is sound in a bare-bones sort of way, with no aesthetics beyond what was filmed but looking presentable nonetheless. The footage shot at the convention provides cameos for a good deal of other ventriloquists, plenty of them obscure but with at least two fairly famous sightings in Jay Johnson and Dan Horn. I wish that some of Nina's new puppets were given more time to expound, but as usual, both she and Monkey remain entertaining as the leading faces. I'm very glad that this film was made and is receiving the distribution that it is, and hope that Conti gets to develop similar projects in the future. This one's definitely worth a look.
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