When I think of ventriloquism in the movies, my thoughts turn to the advertisements for the years 1978 Magic It freaked me out when I was a kid. I was not alone; According to the IMDb trivia page, the original trailer for this psychological horror movie was pulled from streaming after parents complained. (“Fats,” the murderous dummy who apparently possesses Anthony Hopkins’ ventriloquist/magician, is seen in close-up, intoning, “Abracadabra, I’m sitting on his lap. Presto, change-o, and now it’s Me! Hocus Pocus, we take her to bed. Magic is fun; we’re dead.”
For renowned filmmaker, restorer and film essayist Ross Lipman, ventriloquism is a source of fascination for many reasons. “I’ve long been haunted by some of the great ventriloquism movies, and also by their mystery,” he says. “There’s a lot going on at the psychological level, the relationship between the ventriloquist and what’s called the dummy, or the figure. I wanted to explore that.
The case of the missing gods
Saturday, 4/30, 1:15 p.m., Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport, 773-871-6604, musicboxtheatre.com$13.
In his last film, The case of the missing gods, Lipman delves into this dynamic through a fiction/documentary hybrid. The figure of a ventriloquist (Lipman notes that this is the preferred nomenclature, rather than “dummy”) named Hugo has lost his memory. Under hypnosis, his memories are recovered as a history of ventriloquism, from “prophetic tradition to modern horror film”. In addition to MagicLipman quotes the 1945 British film death of nightan anthology of stories that ends with the story of Michael Redgrave’s mentally unbalanced ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere (whose character is named Hugo), as one of the inspirations.
For this project, Lipman enlisted the talents of members of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck, whom he has been friends with since attending the University of Michigan in the 1980s. Ann Arbor, Oobleck’s predecessor; he calls himself “Oobleck-adjacent”.) David Isaacson plays the hypnotist Doctor Labyrinth, with Jeff Dorchen as the voice of Hugo. (Isaacson still lives in Chicago; Lipman, Dorchen and Oobleck vet Lisa Black, who also has a small voice role in the film, are all based in Los Angeles.)
“I always love working with friends, and it’s really helpful when they’re as talented as this group is,” Lipman laughs. “So one thing led to another. Once the roles became clear, David is such a great host and moderator that I quickly imagined him in the role. The film is partly a love letter to classic 1950s horror comics, with David as a demented host who invites you into his lair. Besides, if you need someone to play the dummy of a psychotic ventriloquist, well, Jeff Dorchen is your man. I’m not sure what that says about any of them. I leave that to their analysts.
Isaacson also used ventriloquism as a metaphor for mind control in his work for Oobleck. In the years 1991 The spy cast his voice: plagiarism in two actsa CIA agent/ventriloquist, Secret Agent Man (Dorchen), narrated the show while playing with texts from two Cold War survivors: the black comedy of Czech dissident/playwright/President Václav Havel The Memorandum and the conservative spy thriller William F. Buckley Jr. Stained glass. (Isaacson wrote a sequel in 1996, The spy was in stitchesalso featuring Secret Agent Man.)
“For me, Ross’ restoration work and his interest in film history is central to the film,” says Isaacson. (Lipman, who worked for many years at UCLA Film and Television Archivehas won awards for his restoration work on films by John Sayles, John Cassavetes and Charles Burnett, as well as Barbara Loden’s only feature, the indie classic wanda.) “And in this case, the history of ventriloquism in television and film.
“Ross is very successful as a film essayist. His masterpiece is no movie, which is his cinematic essay on Samuel Beckett’s film titled Film. [Lipman’s 2015 feature-length documentary/essay on Beckett’s 1965 experimental short, starring Buster Keaton, incorporated lost footage he discovered.] Her most recent film debut is titled Between two cinemas. So he’s a master of that form, and I think for that he was interested in taking on the following new challenge: how to take archival material from the film world, as he does in no movie and Between two cinemasand how do you put that into a fictional framing device that’s analytical, funny, and true to the source material you’re working from? »
Isaacson describes Doctor Labyrinth as “the framing device for a deeper analysis of the meaning of ventriloquism and puppetry and the weirdness of ‘Why would you put ventriloquism on film?’ Whatever effect the ventriloquist is trying to achieve, live performance is necessary for that effect to occur. And yet, there’s this whole thing about very creepy movies with ventriloquist dummies.
Screening for The case of the missing gods this Saturday afternoon at the Music Box offers even more opportunities for an Oobleck reunion/celebration. A new short piece by Oobleck member Mickle Maher, Break roomwill precede the screening (Maher has also just released a new anthology of his work, 6 gameswith Agate Publishing), and former Reader Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a longtime Oobleck fan (and someone whose connection to Lipman dates back to when the latter was a film clerk at Facets in the 1980s) will host a Q&A- responses after the screening.
More moving, the film is dedicated to the memory of Danny Thompson, founding member of Theater Oobleck who died in 2019. Thompson won acclaim with his series of performances featuring “Danny and His Things”, in which he performed his own ventriloquism somehow. using common household objects as puppets to embody a series of characters, often as satirical stand-ins for politicians or other leaders. (Memorably, during the Clinton era Triton on a hot roofformer House Speaker Newt Gingrich was represented by a handful of cookie dough.) Thompson also toyed with film footage involving Samuel Beckett in a video in which he envisioned Beckett as the star of a 1970s crime TV show.
The case of the missing gods already premiered at Locarno Festival 2021 in Switzerland and Los Angeles Filmforum a few weeks ago. But bringing him to Chicago has a special meaning for Lipman, and the dedication to Thompson seems entirely on point.
“A lot of my associations with Oobleck are invested in this film,” Lipman says. “And Danny was such a dear and important part of that. We had been friends for so many years, since my late teens. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of film and theater history, and he was such a great source of information, contributing in so many ways before he passed away. I would call him and ask him, ‘What do you know about this or that?’ and he said, ‘Oh, that.‘ Then he would give me a long list of things I should dig into that I didn’t even know – movie clips, mysteries, techniques, etc.
Isaacson adds, “He was an influence on Ross and really everyone who was part of our little artistic group that started together in college. Danny’s visual brilliance, his ability to tell a story through a very fast visual image is something truly remarkable.