When I think of ventriloquism in film, my thoughts flash to the commercials for 1978’s Magic that creeped me out as a kid. I wasn’t alone; according to the IMDb trivia page, the original trailer for this psychological horror film was pulled from broadcast after parents complained. (“Fats,” the murderous dummy who seemingly possesses Anthony Hopkins’s ventriloquist/magician, is seen in close-up, intoning, “Abracadabra, I sit on his knee. Presto, change-o, and now he’s me! Hocus Pocus, we take her to bed. Magic is fun; we’re dead.”)
For celebrated filmmaker, restorationist, 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 films, and also by the mysteriousness of it,” he says. “There’s a lot going on at a 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 Vanishing Gods
Sat 4/30, 1:15 PM, Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, 773-871-6604, musicboxtheatre.com, $13.
In his latest film, The Case of the Vanishing Gods, Lipman delves into that dynamic through a fictional/documentary hybrid. A ventriloquist’s figure (Lipman notes that that’s the preferred nomenclature, over “dummy”) named Hugo has lost his memory. Under hypnosis, his memories are recovered in the form of a history of ventriloquism, from “prophetic tradition to the modern horror film.” In addition to Magic, Lipman cites the 1945 British film Dead of Night, an anthology of stories that concludes with the tale of Michael Redgrave’s mentally imbalanced ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (whose figure is named Hugo), as one of the inspirations.
For this project, Lipman called on the talents of members of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck, with whom he’s been friends since their college days at the University of Michigan in the 1980s. (Lipman worked for a short time with Ann Arbor’s Streetlight Theater, 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 LA.)
“I always like working with friends, and it’s very helpful when they’re coincidentally as talented as this group,” says Lipman with a laugh. “So one thing led to another. Once the roles became apparent, David is just such a great host and moderator that I quickly envisioned him in the role. The film’s in part a love letter to the classic 1950s horror comic books, with David as the demented host inviting you into his lair. And then—if you need somebody to play a psychotic ventriloquist’s dummy—well, Jeff Dorchen’s your man. I’m not sure what this says about either of them. I’ll leave that to their analysts.”
Isaacson too has used ventriloquism as a metaphor for mind control in his work for Oobleck. In 1991’s The Spy Threw His Voice: A Plagiarism in Two Acts, a CIA agent/ventriloquist, Secret Agent Man (Dorchen), narrated the show while also messing with texts by two survivors of the cold war: Czech dissident/playwright/president Václav Havel’s black comedy The Memorandum and conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr.’s spy thriller Stained Glass. (Isaacson wrote a sequel in 1996, The Spy Was in Stitches, also featuring Secret Agent Man.)
“At the center of the film to me is Ross’s restoration work and his interest in the history of film,” says Isaacson. (Lipman, who worked for many years at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, has won accolades for his restoration work on films by John Sayles, John Cassavetes, and Charles Burnett, as well as on Barbara Loden’s sole feature film, the indie classic Wanda.) “And in this case, the history of ventriloquism on television and on film.
“Ross is very successful as a film essayist. His masterwork is Notfilm, which is his film essay about the Samuel Beckett film titled Film. [Lipman’s 2015 feature-length documentary/essay on Beckett’s 1965 experimental short, starring Buster Keaton, incorporated lost footage he discovered.] His more recent essay film is called Between Two Cinemas. So he’s a master of that form, and I think that for this he was interested in taking on the new challenge of: how do you take archival material from the film world, as he does in Notfilm and Between Two Cinemas, and how do you put that within a fictional framing device that is 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 strange aspect of ‘Why would you put ventriloquism on film?’ The entire effect that the ventriloquist is trying to achieve, the live performance is necessary for that effect to happen. And yet there’s this entire history of very creepy films with ventriloquist dummies.”
The screening of The Case of the Vanishing Gods this Saturday afternoon at the Music Box provides even more opportunities for an Oobleck reunion/celebration. A new short play by Oobleck member Mickle Maher, Break Room, will precede the screening (Maher also just released a new anthology of his work, 6 Plays, with Agate Publishing), and former Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a longtime Oobleck fan (and someone whose connection to Lipman stretches back to the latter’s time as a film clerk at Facets in the 1980s) will moderate a post-screening Q and A.
Most poignantly, the film is dedicated to the memory of Danny Thompson, a founding member of Theater Oobleck who died in 2019. Thompson won acclaim with his series of shows featuring “Danny and His Things,” in which he performed his own ventriloquism of sorts by using common household objects as puppets to embody a series of characters, often as satirical stand-ins for politicians or other leaders. (Memorably, in the Clinton-era Newt on a Hot Tin Roof, former House speaker Newt Gingrich was represented by a handful of biscuit dough.) Thompson also played around with film footage involving Samuel Beckett in a video in which he envisioned Beckett as the star of a 1970s-era detective television show.
The Case of the Vanishing Gods already premiered at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and at Los Angeles Filmforum a couple weeks ago. But bringing it to Chicago has special meaning for Lipman, and the dedication to Thompson feels entirely apropos.
“A lot of my associations with Oobleck are invested in this film,” says Lipman. “And Danny was such a dear and important part of that. We’d been friends for so many years, since my late teens. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of film and theater history, and he was just such a great source of information, contributing in so many ways before his passing. I would call him up and ask, ‘What do you know about this or that?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, that.’ Then he’d give a long list of things that I should delve into that I didn’t even know about—film clips, arcana, techniques, you name it.”
Isaacson adds, “He was an influence on Ross and really on everybody 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 quick visual image is something that was really remarkable.”