Thursday, June 6, 2013

No Hands: Her Master's Voice

In Christopher Guest’s HBO series Family Tree, the British ventriloquist Nina Conti plays the hero’s sister who began using a hand puppet as a therapeutic tool after experiencing a childhood trauma. She is now an adult who still has a piece of monkey-shaped felt draped over her hand, using it to express her forbidden and transgressive thoughts. If there’s a popular attitude toward ventriloquism that places it at the bottom of the show business barrel, lumping it in with card tricks and pretending to be trapped inside an imaginary box, there’s a corresponding attitude that sees it as a black art disguised as children’s entertainment, a way for timid people to uncork their inner demons. 

The pretty, petite, charmingly self-effacing Conti—she’s Tom Conti’s daughter—is as much in that mold as Michael Redgrave’s neurotically repressed ventriloquist turned psycho in the horror classic Dead of Night. In the late ‘70s, the blandly normal-looking young ventriloquist Jay Johnson played a character on the sitcom Soap who played insult comedy through his dummy, and whether by design or partly because of Johnson’s inexperience as an actor, he came across as a hollow man, a pure vessel for the dummy’s hostility and meanness. In Her Master’s Voice, a one-hour movie written and directed by Nina Conti and executive produced by Christopher Guest, available now on DVD and streaming on Netflix and Hulu, Johnson briefly appears, reflecting on his ability to “say something awful,” through his dummy, then apologize for it in his own voice: “You immediately defuse it, because you’re apologizing for something he said, when you’ve said it. It’s almost like, okay, I know the ropes, and you’re right. I forgive ‘him.’”

Her Master’s Voice records a trip Conti made to the World Ventriloquism Convention in Kentucky, shortly after the death of her mentor, Ken Campbell. Kentucky is home to the Vent Haven Museum, a shrine to the art of ventriloquism which, among other sacred relics, houses the puppets of Edgar Bergen. As Conti explains, she had been reconsidering her career choice—the career that, in essence, Campbell had chosen for her—and was going to tell him when she learned of his death “by Facebook.” (Campbell, who Conti describes as “a truffle pig for other people’s talents,” told her that the ventriloquist’s dummy “can kill off the watcher at the gate of the mind,” the watcher whose function is to make the artist self-conscious and thus to “kill off creativity.”) 

She takes along the puppets that she inherited from Campbell—including a fiercely smarmy-looking number called Jack, accurately described (by her puppet Monk) as “the veritable cliché of the horror-movie puppet,” and a kindly-faced, bushy-browed old duffer that’s a caricature of Campbell himself—intending to donate them to the museum. The whole pilgrimage thus becomes a tribute to Campbell’s memory, but it’s also about putting that memory behind her, and maybe even—when Conti appears to be seriously considering putting her own puppet away for good—forsaking his hopes for her. So mixed feelings are present throughout, embodied, in an unforced way, by the brief scenes of Conti saying goodbye to her husband as she sets out for Kentucky and gratefully returning to him at the end. (Campbell, who was more than thirty years Conti’s senior, wasn’t just her professional mentor. As Monk points out, she “had a relationship with him, with sex and everything.” She quickly shushes him.)

Campbell was one of those precious, cultishly revered theatrical figures who, with more in the way of energy and blind faith than financial resources, put on productions that were seen by few people at the time but that are destined to inspire thousands more people, decades later, to still be muttering, “Damn, that sounds cool.” (Americans may best remember him as Roger the asshole in “The Anniversary,” an episode of John Cleese’s great farce-sitcom Fawlty Towers, in which his character is overjoyed to find himself with a front row seat at someone else’s embarrassing domestic situation.) His credits include co-writing and directing a nine-hour cycle of five plays based on Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy; commissioning and directing Neil Oram’s autobiographical ten-play cycle The Warp, staging the whole thing as one continuous, 22-hour experience; and a pidgin English production of Macbeth, as well as several one-man shows. 

Such figures are likely to remain cult heroes while people they work with go on to greater fame and fortune, and the opening section of Her Master’s Voice includes clips of Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent paying memorial tribute to their fallen colleague. “He was a writer, he was a director,” Conti says of Campbell, “but what he was really astounding with was playing God with other people.” She means that in a good way, just as she probably means her film’s title in a good way, but both have a edge to them. Her Master’s Voice is a love letter to both Campbell and the art that he and Conti shared, but it’s also a fascinated, troubled meditation on influence and control. Campbell may have helped Conti to defeat the watcher at the gate, but Campbell’s power to shape her life proves harder to exorcise, even from beyond the grave.

Campbell must have had his own struggles with control. He had an anarchistic temperament, and the special challenge of the consciously anarchistic artist is to find the right degree of control to bring coherence and shape to his work; an overly rigid argument for unbridled freedom and pure spontaneity may seem hypocritical, but a sloppy mess does nobody any good, no matter how liberating it was for its creator to get it out of his system. The stereotype of the crazy ventriloquist in thrall to his dummy is a metaphor for the id taking over, and in the examples of Conti’s stage act that are included here, the balance of power between the demure Conti and her monkey-id keeps shifting in ways that might be a metaphor for the creative process itself. In the funniest moment, Monk tries to hypnotize Conti, and he succeeds in putting her in a deep sleep, only to discover that when she’s unconscious, he can no longer speak. At times, Her Master’s Voice is a little like a haunted My Dinner with Andre, with an Andre who only (thanks to old tape recordings) occasionally chimes in from the other side. It’s slight, but in a charming way, and as with Nina Conti herself, there’s something poignant and unresolved underneath the charm. Conti’s stage routine ends with Monk taking possession of Conti’s body, and as she prances about, speaking in the voice she’s been using for the puppet, it’s hard to pin down exactly which of them has disappeared. “Quite a sweet voice on a little monkey,” she rasps. “But in a dress, it’s rather sinister.”

 Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club                                                                            

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