Fanfare
Published in

Fanfare

Drop by Drop

Val examines the pains and frustrations of an artist’s life

Not long before the lights go down on the raw and somewhat depressing videography Val, its subject, Val Kilmer, in character as Mark Twain, offers a question — perhaps, for him, the question: “What are the words that heal a broken heart?” Kilmer, whose peak as a Hollywood actor probably ran from 1984 (his debut Top Secret!) to 1995 (Batman Forever), has lost a great deal in his life. He appears to us now as a rumpled but unbowed version of his younger self, humbled but also possibly delivered into a purer way of being. He no longer gets hired for big-ticket movies, but maybe he had outgrown them anyway. It’s likely Kilmer’s film career in the 2010s would have been fallow even without the cancer (diagnosed in 2015) that took his voice.

Kilmer’s voice always landed quirkily on the ear anyway. His defining performance, for me, was in his second feature, Real Genius; his brilliant science brat Chris Knight had a way of making smarts seem sexy, witty, radical. His best-received turns, certainly including his possible peak as Doc Holliday in 1993’s Tombstone, ran off of Kilmer’s self-amused vibe of outsider cool as expressed in a vocal tone that stayed just this side of parody (a good number of his early performances all sound as though his dialogue has ironic quotation marks around it). This was a guy who was going to keep you at arm’s length out of necessity — nursing his own pains, starting with losing his younger brother when Kilmer was about to hang his hat at Juilliard — and it meant all the more when he showed you some vulnerability, as at the end of Doc Holliday’s life.

We certainly see his vulnerability in Val. The movie was assembled by directors/editors Leo Scott and Ting Poo from hours of video footage shot by Kilmer himself over the years — on the sets of Top Gun or The Doors or The Island of Dr. Moreau. The narrative flips back and forth between home movies of Kilmer (narrated by Kilmer’s son Jack) and newer footage of Kilmer talking slowly and painstakingly through his trach button, or fulfilling autograph gigs at conventions or screenings. Kilmer seems to perceive that his acting career is by and large over, supplanted by a sort of extended farewell tour where he scribbles “I’ll be your wingman” on Top Gun posters for fans over and over. Sometimes this turn of events saddens him, and sometimes he’s in a mood to see it as a tribute to the mark he’s made on people’s lives. Having lost nearly everything, he grapples his grown kids (Jack and Mercedes) unto his soul with hoops of steel.

Throughout Val — produced by Kilmer and his kids — we know full well we’re getting one side and one side only. The movie does soften one’s attitude towards him (if we paid any attention to the media’s pegging him as “difficult” in the ‘90s); we come to feel he’s earned some rest, some laurels to rest on. He keeps his creative hand in by doing paintings or cut-up scrapbook projects; Val is like one of his scrapbooks promoted to a “documentary.” Between this film and his 2020 memoir I’m Your Huckleberry, Kilmer seems to be ordering his legacy, in his standard eccentric-shambolic style. The floors of his place are littered with clippings, photos, memorabilia, many highlighted by Kilmer’s magic-marker scrawl.

As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody noted, the Rosebud of Kilmer’s life was his younger brother and early collaborator Wesley, gone far too soon at 15 — perhaps the artistic partner who understood Kilmer the best. It’s tempting though probably simplistic to diagnose Kilmer’s subsequent life and career as looking in vain for Wesley again. Regardless, Kilmer carried that sense of Super-8-in-the-backyard playfulness to his film roles. Watching him in that oft-clipped Top Gun scene where he chops his teeth at Tom Cruise and then grins, we felt that whatever private joke this guy was having, we wanted to be in on it. He lured us closer; he never came closer to us, but made us feel it’d be cool to be included on his wavelength, even if he never quite brought us in all the way. In Val, we see him low and sad and sick, but it’s still only the face he wants to put forward. He remains, somewhat triumphantly, off in his own zone.

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