“Cinema Twain” Kilmer’s Career Triumph
Inside the intimate setting of the historical Clay Theater in San Francisco, Val Kilmer casually emerged from the dark void of the audience, seemingly appearing out of nowhere to take the stage and present his indelible masterpiece, “Cinema Twain”, the adaption of his stage play, “Citizen Twain.” He addressed the packed crowd humbly, as if he was the student and the faces that occupied the theater seats his teachers, welcoming feedback after the screening. However, after 90 minutes, the audience would soon come to realize that he was in fact the maestro, and they, along everyone who has had the pleasure of viewing this show, mere instruments of his creative dominion.
As I was waiting in line before “Cinema Twain”, I had no idea what to expect. Where has Val Kilmer been the last 13 years, aside from the occasional small role? Why did he choose to write a play about Twain? What connection did he have with him? All I could do was keep an open mind and enjoy. The last point Mr. Kilmer made before the screening was that these stage productions were not only meant to smooth the surface of his script and production, but also to develop his character. Each night, he would evolve. This also allowed Kilmer to have more creative control by interacting with the audience in a productive way that would move his scripted plot forward.
The play begins in the present day (this particular performance was taped in Pasadena in 2013). Immediately, Kilmer’s Twain establishes a recurring motif. He proclaims, “I recognize that I am dead, but I do not realize “, therein acknowledging where he is, when he is, and that he is in fact dead. Though he is aware he is dead, he does not want to accept it.
Throughout the play, Kilmer repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and engages the audience in character, taking notes rigorously on his hand with his imaginary pencil about which of his jokes are still relevant 100 years posthumously, and those that are either no longer relevant or clearly go over the audience’s head. Kilmer cleverly incorporates the “trial and error” point he made before the screening into the actual production, responding to the audience’s reactions, or, occasionally, lack-thereof; he endearingly pesters the audience to add social commentary about how shallow the world has become, whether it was telling them to explain to their children and grandchildren that newspapers are just thin iPads, or that they could not be bothered with anything that was not Kardashian-related. He is highlighting the drastic shift over the last 100 years since his death of the diminishing value of words and the increasing obsession with celebrity culture.
Cues would come in the form of a light from “god”, sending down newspapers, giving Kilmer’s Twain direction on where to take the play’s plot.
“God wants me to apologize to Mary Baker Eddy [founder of Christian Science] for accusing her of plagiarism! I will not!” Kilmer shouts. Throughout the play, he goes back and forth between telling his life story and going back to Eddy, eventually apologizing to her. Kilmer explained that although Twain publicly criticized Eddy, he greatly admired her, and spent the last 10 years of his life obsessed with her; he struggled with his own mortality, secretly believing Eddy might hold the only cure for his neurotic, existential crisis.
“God also wants me to finish my autobiography. But I do not want to, because then I will be gone. I recognize that I am dead dead, but I do not realize it.” This aforementioned motif personifies Twain’s existential crisis. The rest of the play, he meanders throughout various pivotal points in his life, using them as a vehicle to make sharp social and political commentary in a fashion that only Twain could.
One may often forget that it is just Kilmer in extensive makeup and prosthesis, but rather actually believe that Mr. Twain is performing standup comedy in the flesh. Topics ranged from god, whom he portrayed as a flawed human being, to mocking god, the inherent moral atrocity of colonialism, missionaries, and the spread of Christianity, the absurdity of the Christian justification of slavery, fundamentally deconstructing racism, the hypocrisy and daftness of politicians, and the blurred line between government and religion. Throughout the play, Kilmer’s Twain cleverly uses the terms “god” and “government” interchangeably to underline the illogical overlapping of church and state. Kilmer covers these subjects deftly, with the wry wit (which he eerily, flawlessly conjures) and sharp satire that singularly characterized Twain.
Aside from Val Kilmer’s admiration for Mark Twain as a person and important literary voice, Kilmer’s connection with Twain seemed existential. “I recognize that I am dead, but I do not realize it”. This recurring spoken motif, the reluctance of Twain to follow “god”‘s demand to finish his autobiography, and his fixation with Eddy’s Christian Science healing stories reflect a clear refusal to come to terms with death. Samuel Clemens is dead, but Mark Twain is immortal. Although his words are finite on paper, they are everlasting in our collective memory. It became apparent that this tireless portrayal reflects humankinds’s own coming to terms with death; it puts every human being’s inevitable encounter with death into a perspective that is easy to grasp.
As a whole, one can think of the production as a non-linear, surreal standup comedy show, sprinkled with moments of raw emotion. Kilmer surrounded himself with heavyweight comedians Dave Chappelle and Will Forte to help him with his standup routine and delivery. It paid dividends, as Kilmer’s Twain had the audience laughing tears. But then, on a dime, he would break out in pouring tears when discussing a sad memory, and the tone would change in such powerful way, transforming the audience’s tears into those of genuine empathy.
Kilmer displays such a wide range of emotions in the 90 minute taping of his performance, 95% of which contained the Pasadena performance in 2013, with exception of two added jokes, that it is virtually impossible to fathom his mental process of conjuring and controlling his conveyed feelings. He is no stranger to disappearing into rolls (a skill he no doubt developed during his studies at Juilliard and perfected throughout the evolution of his career), from performing his own guitar and singing as Jim Morrison in “The Doors” to portraying a junkie musician in “The Salton Sea”, he continues to choose roles that allow him to further display his exponential range as an actor. Still, there is no margin for error in a play. There are no second takes, making it all the more impressive. Simply put, it is one of the most astonishing performances I have ever seen. It would be enough applause to give Kilmer credit for his performance alone, but he also produced, wrote, and directed “Citizen Twain”.
So, where has Val Kilmer been for the last 13 years? He’s been developing this screenplay, then, opposing the typical Hollywood process, adapting it into a satirical, meta stage production. He’s been perfecting his cappolavoro, his masterpiece. Looking forward, Kilmer is excited to finally turn “Cinema Twain” into a feature-length film, for which he has already begun fundraising.