In America, the Dummy Controls the Ventriloquist

Ventriloquist DummyEarlier this week, I wrote about the movie Cradle Will Rock. It really is a good film and an indication of this is that I had totally forgotten that I had already written about the film. I was still thinking, I’ve got to figure out how to write about the film. And this morning, it hit me, “My Suitcase and a Clown.” But all it really meant was that I have more to say about the movie. For a general discussion of it, go and read what I wrote.

I write songs and in my lifetime, I’ve certainly written over a hundred and very likely double that. My style was always a bit unusual, but in the last decade it has gotten to the point where it is mostly bizarre—or at least that’s the case in the songs I most love. I can still write a blues song. Not that long ago, I wrote a song in iambic pentameter called, “Angela’s Drilling a Hole.” (Regardless what you think, it’s not about that.) And I can still grind out the kind of post-punk I cut my teeth on like a song all my friends hate, “Jimmy Burned His Hand.” (That one probably is what you think, as long as you assume he did it intentionally and that there are lots more like him.) But these more recent ones—the bizarre ones—are, according to those who have heard parts of them, unlistenable.

As far as I can tell, they are unpleasant (But not to me!) because they are highly syncopated and repetitive. They are, in fact, the kinds of songs I tried to write when I first started writing songs. But people told me that they weren’t songs. And they were right: they were more along the lines of chants—but really “in your face” chants. The first of these more recent “bizarre” songs I remember writing was, “You Make Me Want to Be a Meat Inspector.” (You can probably guess that’s a love song, but you probably misunderstand the meaning of “meat.” Don’t think sex, think 1 Corinthians 13:11.)

One of the problems with these songs is that I so love them that I never really finish them. They’re like those old Bob Dylan tunes that have dozens of verses. But because no one is paying me or even willing to listen, I never have to stop. And that brings me to “My Suitcase and a Clown.” Obviously, this is about a a labor dispute between a ventriloquist and his “dummy.” Okay, it isn’t obvious at all, but that’s what it’s about. The “clown” in the title is the ventriloquist, not the “dummy.” Just like the labor struggles of old, it starts violent, but it ends with respect and profit sharing.

As you know if you’ve read my other article on Cradle Will Rock, Bill Murray plays Tommy Crickshaw, an old vaudeville ventriloquist. He is one of the anti-communists, but it is pretty clear in the film that the main reason he testifies against the FTP that he is part of, is that he has fallen in love with Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack). But his testimony has put him out of job and now all the other artists hate him. He’s in his dressing room talking to his puppet and it is implied that Crickshaw used to be a communist himself. And then we get the following scene (don’t worry about the length, it is cued to the right part):

And then we know. He sings (as his puppet) “The Internationale”[1] by heart. He was a communist. And he is lost. We only see him very briefly later where he and Huffman meet, perhaps implying a relationship, but they both seem broken by the experience.

What I think is interesting is that I’ve always flattered myself that I was unique. And I do think that labor relations from the perspective of a ventriloquist and a “dummy” is fairly creative. What’s more, my take on it is quite different. But I admire Tim Robbins for coming up with the idea and putting it into this film in this way. It really is brilliant. And when the puppet falls off the stand and onto the floor, it is shocking—perhaps the saddest moment in the film.

Clearly, puppet is an inanimate object. In the scene, Crickshaw is doing all the work. In our society, things are the reverse of that. We have a system where the puppet is what is most valued. After all, he’s the funny one; he’s the one who appears to be delivering the goods. But without Crickshaw, he is nothing. By this I absolutely do not mean that capital shouldn’t be privately owned or that it doesn’t deserve a cut of the profits. But for almost 40 years—the vast majority of my life—productivity gains have gone almost exclusively to those who own capital. The Crickshaws, who make everything work by, you know, working have gotten virtually nothing.

In the movie, Crickshaw’s puppet is a symbol of lost innocence. But in our world, the dummy is now in control of the ventriloquist. I do not wish it, but one day, the cradle will fall.

[1] In case you aren’t familiar:

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