Dumbstruck

Posted on April 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief suggestive humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to substance abuse

Once a year, there is a gathering in Kentucky for people who “talk to themselves and play with dolls for a living” — ventriloquists.  “Dumbstruck” is a documentary from Lindsay and Mark Goffman that follows five of them for the year between two of these Vent Haven ConVENTions in what turned out to be the biggest year in history for the tiny little community.   One of its members unexpectedly hit the biggest of the big time when Terry Fator went from performing at county fairs to a $100 million headliner contract in Las Vegas after he won “America’s Got Talent.”

For an enduringly popular style of performance, there’s a lot of hating on ventriloquists.  Many people think of them as corny or annoying, just above mimes or strange, like the murderous ventriloquist characters played by Anthony Hopkins in “Magic” or Michael Redgrave in “Dead of Night.” When Fator walked on stage for the first time in “America’s Got Talent,” judge David Hasselhoff said, “Oh, no, a ventriloquist.”

But it is impossible not to fall in love with the characters in this film — the human ones, anyway — because it is more than an act from someone who might have just as easily chosen juggling.  It is clear that these people become ventriloquists because they have things to say that they just do not feel comfortable saying any other way.  I used to think that the reason ventriloquists argued with their characters was to enhance the audience’s perception that the puppet was a real character.  But this movie makes it clear that the relationship — and that is truly the word that applies — between the person and the puppet is far deeper and more complex and intriguing, and the passion it requires is profoundly moving. All of us adopt personas for different situations; they just make it more explicit.  The art is less about whether the lips move or the voice sounds different than it is about the ability to take a portion of what is inside them and create a complete character from it.  After all, the most successful American ventriloquist of the 20th century, Edgar Bergen, performed on the radio.

This film has a former beauty queen, Kim Yeager, whose mother wistfully dreams that her daughter will give up ventriloquism and live a normal life.  But Yeager is wholeheartedly committed, performing more than 400 shows in a year, many of them safety demonstrations for schoolchildren.  In one of the movie’s most intriguing scenes, she gets some advice from a consultant on her act and ends up completely re-thinking her main character.  Then there’s Dan Horn, who was at what used to be considered the height of success for a ventriloquist.  He spends most of his time on the lucrative cruise ship bookings.  But the long separations are very hard on him and his family.  We learn about Wilma Swartz from her nephew, who tells us that the rest of the family has abandoned her but that he is loyal to her because of her kindness to him when he had no one else.  She is 6 feet 5 inches tall and one of her puppets is a life-size ostrich.  And when she needs help, she finds that the ventriloquist community stands by her.   Dylan Burdette is a white middle-schooler from rural Kentucky whose mystified parents are trying to understand why he wants to be a ventriloquist and why he insists on a dummy who is a black “pimp.”  And there is Terry Fator, who as this movie was being filmed, became a superstar.  He returns to Vent Haven as a homecoming hero, and the Goffmans show great sensitivity and understanding in portraying the mingled emotions of his fellow puppeteers as they share his triumph and wish some of it would rub off on them.

The Goffmans have a lot of affection for their characters, and by the end of the film, you will, too.

(more…)

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Interview: Mark Goffman of ‘Dumbstruck’

Posted on April 20, 2011 at 8:00 am

I love Mark and Lindsay Goffman’s new documentary, “Dumbstruck,” which follows five ventriloquists over the course of a year between the two annual conventions that give them their one chance to be with others who share their passion.  It is funny, smart, inspiring, and heartwarming, and I had a lot of fun talking to Mark about how it got made and what he learned.

You must have been shocked when one of your subjects became an international superstar in the course of making the film.  Terry Fator won “America’s Got Talent” and now has a hundred million dollar contract with the Mirage in Las Vegas.

We set out to look at working ventriloquists in small-town America.  That’s where we thought we would find ventriloquism.  It harkens back to a simpler time and we liked the smaller venues’ feel.  We knew Terry was phenomenally talented from the moment we saw him.  We expected to see him in his home city of Corsicana and state fairs and things like that and then he got on “America’s Got Talent” and it just exploded from there.

The other ventriloquists are very happy for him but it also makes them dream bigger for themselves.

It gave a lot of people hope.  They’re a really tight-knit community and think of themselves as a family and that was something I really wanted to capture in the film.  There are very few ventriloquists in most towns so they feel a bit isolated.  They feel like they’re on their own and as you can see in the film their families don’t always support this vocation they have chosen so they have this very strong sense of community.  Really, when we stared we thought cruise ships was the pinnacle — that was a great living.  Dan Horn was seen as achieving about as much success as you can get with this art form.  And Terry comes out of nowhere and explodes onto the screen and it was really quite astonishing.

How did this project get started?

At our wedding my mother-in-law got up to give a toast.  Her lips didn’t move and she held up her hand with a white glove on it like a sock puppet and words started coming out and her hand started delivering a toast.  It was incredibly endearing and charming and really funny and certainly unexpected to the 150 guests.  It turned out she does ventriloquism primarily in schools — she’s a second grade teacher and she does it in her classroom.  But she has learned that she can express herself very differently and it makes her feel a lot more comfortable in front of a crowd.  She told us about the ventriloquist conference in Kentucky and Lindsay and I knew that this was a community we wanted to see.  We found 500 people with their dummies talking back and forth and really bonding.  We fell in love with these five people that we wanted to follow.

Some of the family members you spoke to were embarrassed or even hostile about their relatives’ interest in ventriloquism.

We wanted to know what their lives were like outside of the convention where they feel welcome and very supported.  And we found that most of the time their families didn’t understand.  We hope that’s something people can relate to, whether it’s any hobby or career path, some people have families that are very supportive and others have to find the courage and determination to pursue their dreams and their loves despite what others around them think.

That’s why they are so happy to be together — they feel understood and accepted.

The people who run the convention say it’s like a family reunion.  They keep that kind of atmosphere and it’s a very welcoming environment.  You see that when Wilma needs help, the people are there for her.

Is it true that you had to remind the sound guys not to mic the puppets?

It was true of the boom mics — when the dummy starts talking, we had to remind them to keep them over the person, not the puppet.

Have you tried ventriloquism?

I have tried it; it’s incredibly hard.  I have enormous respect for anyone who can do it.  It’s an instrument.  You have eyes, ears, mouth, you have to synch with the voice.  That’s one of the reasons we showed Tim Selberg; he is like the Stradavarius of figure-makers; they can cost up to $20,000.  These things are finely-tuned instruments.  Not only do you have to manipulate this and make it behave like a human being but you have to create a character, a persona.  And then, on top of that, you have to come up with a routine that’s essentially a stand-up routine, and that’s a talent in itself.  It’s a combination of a lot of different skills.  It’s very hard.

Yes, one of the most interesting scenes is where one of your ventriloquists gets some advice from a consultant about how to improve her act because you see how much has to go into it.

She was looking for some guidance and the man who came in and helped her is very well known and respected and he advised her to give her puppet a huge makeover.  He was mining the comedy out of who she was and trying to give her puppet a counterpart to play off that.  The successful ones create a character who can say the things they wouldn’t normally say or aren’t comfortable saying.

The puppets are a contrast to the ventriloquists, especially then-12-year-old Dylan, a white boy with an African-American dummy.

Dylan told us there are very few minorities in his school and he’s a showman and he thought he could get a lot of shock value and mileage out of it.  At the same time, he told me on many occasions that Reggie is his best friend and he hopes they are together for the rest of his life.  It’s an amazing attachment that they have.

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