What does the night have to do with the day?
—Loma, “Who is Speaking?”
The Case of the Vanishing Gods
The god most readily present in Ross Lipman’s latest hybrid essayistic feature The Case of the Vanishing Gods (2021) might be Janus. Though the god is not a character voiced or performed in the film, the overtness of the doorway/threshold establishing shot, cover art, and film connection make his presence clear. Tied to duality, doorways, time, and transition, the Roman god has two conjoined faces—one looking east and the other towards the west—and is, of course, the namesake of legendary distribution company Janus Films. Vanishing Gods begins with loud breathing in darkness (as though we are inside the head of the protagonist, and filmmaker), followed by a steady knock on a heavy, wooden door. The door cracks open to reveal the monocled Dr. Labyrinth, a vaguely continental psychoanalyst-cum-serial-host, played with delicious camp by David Isaacson.
Thus, we cross the threshold into the realm of Janus—the themes he presides over, at least—and we are thrust into a vertiginous romp through a fragmented history of ventriloquism. Far from dry pedagogy, these lessons are narrated by Dr. Labyrinth in his fictitious three-part serial, “The Psycho Ward.” With the exception of the good doctor, the cast consists entirely of puppets and their puppeteers. This unusual configuration becomes the framework for Lipman’s mining of archival film and television footage for his thesis on the dizzying entanglement of popular entertainment, psychological splits, and spirituality.
The film’s first act is also the first installment of “The Psycho Ward.” Poor bedraggled ventriloquist’s dummy Hugo, voiced by Jeff Dorchen, who imbues the puppet with intensely neurotic charm, shows up on Dr. Labyrinth’s doorstep with a classic plea: “Doc, ya gotta help me.” As Dr. Labyrinth recalls his strange case, questions of who is pulling the strings, so to speak, are already apparent: both Dr. Labyrinth and Hugo are played by puppets instead of human actors. Their strings are fully visible and expertly operated by a team of puppeteers (Karl Herlinger, Eli Presser, Michael Serwich, and Jeff Speetjens) led by Audrey Densmore, who has worked with LA’s celebrated Bob Baker Marionette Theater since 2015. When Hugo enters Labyrinth’s wunderkammer-office, so does Densmore, in a mask. Yet, we are told by Dr. Labyrinth to see Hugo not as a marionette, but as a rogue ventriloquist’s dummy: “Now clearly a dummy cannot walk, especially without a ventriloquist…so right away I knew something was amiss.” A puppet show within a memory within a television program within a movie.
Laced with puppet jokes, the mise en abyme spirals even further down the rabbit hole when Dr. Labyrinth begins to treat Hugo by way of excavating his subconscious. Hugo, we learn, has no idea who he is but is nightly haunted by a familiar voice and (“get this”) a dream of himself as a marionette whose strings are being cut. Employing hypnosis, Dr. Labyrinth coaxes Hugo to narrate his dreams, which turn out to be “no less than a history of ventriloquism.” In the dream, ethereal puppets (created by Vermont artist Julia Zanes) illustrate that once, in ancient times, the gods communicated directly with everyone. Over time, however, their voices took up residence in the bellies of the select few who could translate and deliver their messages. (Etymologically, “ventriloquism” means “to speak from the belly.”) As Dr. Labyrinth continues to recall what he learned from Hugo’s dreams, we are next informed that the modern incarnation of ventriloquism was established by Fred Russell and his figure Coster Joe in 1886, with the advent of cinema just on the horizon.
Preposterously, we learn, the first instance of ventriloquism in cinema was in a silent film. This utter disjuncture of entertainment forms clearly tickles Lipman, underlying the film’s fascination with the complicated possibilities between what we see and what we hear. From this strange establishing encounter between the two forms, Hugo’s dreams go on to provide a wild crash course through the trajectory of the disembodied-ventriloquist-dummy-as-force-of-evil in film, a sort of unruly origin story of a media trope. A lot of territory is covered, from the aforementioned MGM silent The Unholy Three (1925) to the 2015 film genre-fuckery of Goosebumps starring Jack Black as R.L. Stine, and plenty in between—a catalog of films referenced could be offered as a standalone syllabus on ventriloquism in cinema.
Lipman does not stop with excavating a media history of ventriloquism, though. Instead, he uses this foundation to introduce some serious questions, both intellectual and more urgently existential. The film’s dual enactment and analysis of the collision of ancient (puppetry) and relatively new (cinema) entertainment forms asks the viewer to consider what distinguishes a movie from a puppet show (the edit, for one) as well as what they have in common. And while Vanishing Gods does not count the analog/digital divide among its list of overt dualities, its textures and attention to materiality point towards the paradox of film’s position as both “dead” (as relatively fragile strips of celluloid) and infinitely “alive” (as moving pictures, and more abstractly, as myths).
Vanishing Gods’s deepest concerns, however, are spiritual. If the dummy expresses the ventriloquist’s basest self—the id, maybe—then what does it mean when it takes on a walking, talking life of its own? Or, if our dummies deliver messages from the gods, why have they gotten so scary and mean? Does it matter that, through cinema, we are telling this story ourselves? Are we telling this story ourselves? Who is speaking? These anxieties are stated plainly by Dr. Labyrinth at the film’s conclusion: “If the gods were still close to us, why instead were our visions of murder? Where was that transcendent connected world shining amidst the galaxy? How could one find a path back to the gods?”
It is no doubt a mighty task to lay out the question Where are the gods? and to implicate cinema within a possible answer. Films that self-reflexively take subconscious messages and dreamstates as subject matter are certainly not rare—Inception (2010) is one recent and high-profile example. Flash-and-bang and hot-Nolan-nonsense aside, what most distinguishes Lipman’s film is its body of bricolage and its soul of an earnest spiritual quest. Its serious interrogation of modernity and the mystic pains and pleasures of duality track with Lipman’s Notfilm (2015) and the autobiographical Between Two Cinemas (2018), each questioning the sometimes-impossible tensions between form and meaning as they relate to the history of cinema. Though miles sillier than these earlier works, The Case of the Vanishing Gods nonetheless offers a deeply ambitious, compelling account of the infinite conflations and permutations of material, cinematic, and psychological territories. That it does so with humor and the utmost ingenuity, with an ethereal budget and a cool seventy-minute run time, makes it a beacon of scrappy existential glory. What Vanishing Gods does not do is presume the authority of a single God, philosopher, psychoanalyst, puppeteer, ventriloquist, or motion picture director—it’s just not that kind of movie. Instead, it opens the door for its questions to blessedly run free, like so many gods, or puppets without strings.
Friday, January 20, 2023
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