This year’s Dallas International Film Festival opened with a movie about a puppeteer, Being Elmo, which told the story of Kevin Clash, a kid from outside Baltimore who rose from a lower middle class background to create one of the most recognizable characters in popular culture. It was a sweet, inspiring film – a rags-to-riches, when-you-wish-upon-a-star fable that nonetheless felt half-told.
Life, as we all who sit, eat, drink, and socialize among the throngs of the ordinary know all too well, doesn’t always work out so sweetly. Enter Dumbstruck, a new documentary by Mark Goffman about the unseen world of ventriloquists. Every year, devotees to this under-loved performing art gather in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky for The Vent Haven Convention (vent short for ventriloquist, of course). These vents range from the seasoned vet who has appeared on The David Letterman Show to the struggling, woe-be-gone misfits who have dedicated themselves to pursing ventriloquism while the rest of their lives fall apart around them.
Goffman is a kind director. It would have been easy to construct Dumbstruck as a cynical butchering of the American dream, an odd, David Lynch-like probing of the workings of the eccentric mind, or even a Christopher Guest-style comedic skewering of outside-the-freeway-loop middle Americans. Instead, Goffman takes his subjects at face value, and as it turns out, sincerity still has much to teach us about life. Dumbstruck is an occasionally touching film that honors the courage of those seemingly absurd few who remain ever-faithful to that undying spark that burns in the hearts of true performers.
Goffman focuses on five ventriloquists. There’s Dylan, the 13-year old shy kid from Ohio who is already devoted to the craft, to the obvious, un-shielded dismay of his motocross bike-riding father. Wilma is a six-foot tall middle-aged woman who performs mostly for kids, handicapped, and the elderly, gigs that paint her in saintly form, but which nonetheless don’t help her when her house is foreclosed upon. Rounding out the striving characters is Kim, a former beauty pageant contestant in her 30s for whom life – on and off the stage – keeps coming up short.
The hopes and dreams of these characters revolve around the sudden release that “making it” would inspire. But making it as a ventriloquist doesn’t look very attractive. Case in point: Dan is an established veteran who has performed on The David Letterman Show and is a regular on the coveted cruise ship circuit. However, during the course of the year Dumstruck was filmed, Dan’s wife finally succumbs to the pressure of Dan’s months away, leaving him after 25 years. Dan is the suffering artist savant, a master at a trade that promises no real glory, unable to pursue any other career that would reap the fields of a more conventional existence. He is funny, personable, kind, sad, and desperately lonely.
Finally there’s Terry Fator, a name you’ve heard if you grew up in Corsicana, Texas or if you were glued to the television show America’s Got Talent. For 22-years Fator was like the rest of his puppet wielding brethren, sweating out penny-paying gigs in obscurity and hoping and praying against all odds that someday his payoff would come. Fator used to play the lottery, he explains at one point in the film, but then he stopped when he realized he had the talent to pursue riches through his act. Fator’s payoff came when he won America’s Got Talent, propelling him into a lucrative career as a star Vegas entertainer.
You root for Fator, you really do. He’s a good guy, and it is nice to see good guys get their do. But as Clint Eastwood famously says in Unforgiven, this is a world where “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” That fact is hammered home in a scene in Dumbstruck after Fator has found success, and, at the Vent Haven Convention, dressed in a snappy, custom tailored suit, he tells Dan Horn, whose marriage has just fallen apart, how much he admired Dan on his way up. The look on Dan’s face is infinitely complicated, as if he is seething in anger or wincing from a wound. Or, perhaps, Dan’s expression is that of a man who, through Fator, is momentarily staring into the abyss of a seemingly meaningless existence. Regardless, there is nothing for Dan to do but do what all of these ventriloquists must do every single day of their lives: brush it off, pack up the dolls, and head to the next gig.