SXSW ’12 Review: Nina Conti Proves She’s No Dummy in “Her Master’s Voice”



All our SXSW 2012 coverage can be found here.

Since it's been far too long since we've been treated to the dedicated eccentrics who populate Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, there's no wonder why Guest has lent his name as an executive producer to British ventriloquist Nina Conti's quasi-autobiographical documentary "Her Master's Voice."

If Guest hasn't already purchased the rights to remake the film as his own, it's only because Catherine O'Hara needs more work on speaking through her teeth. Still, there's no doubt that Conti, who made the film as a tribute to her late mentor, is both untouchable in her craft and essentially initimable, though her job is to do just that for others. Her primary scene partner is a monkey puppet with a touch of Sean Connery in his voice, and while her profession is predicated on the illusion the character is separate from the person manipulating them, "Her Master's Voice" makes it appears as if in Conti's case it's the puppet that's manipulating her.

When we meet Conti, she's on the brink of leaving ventriloquism after 10 years in the business, musing over a montage of her successes, "I'm wondering if this artform has its limitations." Incidentally, Conti's about to find out she may not have any choice but to continue on when she learns of the death of Ken Campbell, a legendary experimental theater pioneer who has bequeathed to her his entire treasure chest of puppets, including one that looks exactly like him with his long nose and bushy eyebrows. For that reason alone, Conti can't easily leave her past behind in spite of her newfound skepticism about her work, so all she can do is press ahead and settles on a plan to honor Campbell's memory by heading to Kentucky for the World Ventriloquist Convention and "retire" one of Campbell's puppets at Vent Haven, a museum where puppets go when they're no longer of use to their owners (or as Conti puts it, "uniquely bereaved objects – they no longer have a voice").

Just an hour long, the film moves at a pace as brisk as the fast-talking Conti, the camera following her around the convention, interspersed with interviews with other ventriloquists delving into both their technique and the psychological conditions that inspired them to develop multiple personalities. "Her Master's Voice" is told all in good fun, but as the film wears on, Conti's neuroses come out in her various characters, actually confessing things Conti likely wouldn't in her natural voice, her monkey alter ego blurting out tidbits like how she slept with Campbell when he was in his 60s and she was in her 20s and telling herself through one of Ken's puppets "you've turned this tribute into a tart holiday," and replying in her natural voice, "You shouldn't drink and do ventriloquism."

Whether Conti's simply gifted enough to truly inhabit the fully fleshed out psyches of all her characters or actually believes they're living confidants, the puppets are real enough in her presence to build toward a serious dramatic reckoning as to whether she actually can let go of either Campbell's memory or the career he set her up for. It's surprising just how effective this is in terms of dramatic tension. The fact that Conti directed the film as well as serves as its subject suggests the bifurcation she's developed as ventriloquist has allowed her to present herself unconscious of the camera with bracing honesty in one scene and yet fully aware of how to move the film forward.

But dwelling on the serious issues that crop up in "Her Master's Voice" would be to miss out on what makes it so entertaining. Conti is self-aware enough to find all the little details that make the world pop to anyone unfamiliar with it, grabbing brief flashes of pamphlets at the convention with titles such as "Gospel Scripts for Bird Puppets" and observes the Monkey contemplating his own mortality as he looks over the corpses of retired puppets named Silly Mindy and Johnnie Pine at Vent Haven. Though the staging of some scenes feel forced – Conti takes the Ken puppet for a swim and has a horrifying nightmare about the monkey – and slow down the narrative, the film's natural arc of Conti finding closure of some kind to her relationship with Campbell and personal contentment is ultimately satisfying.

Naturally, Campbell's grave stone is a unique one, with an empty place carved out in stone for the teacher's silhouette and with this film, Conti has filled it in with a loving memorial that's likely as enjoyable as Campbell would've wanted.

"Her Master's Voice" does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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