val kilmer

There is a moment in Val, a reflective memoir by Hollywood star, Val Kilmer, where he looks at the camera (he does this a lot) and references a poem by William Butler Yeats:

You see a tree and you observe a truth about the tree, and you are hit with it, the magic of the tree. It’s a spiritual thing, beyond the physical life form of the tree. So then you write and write and write about the form of the tree and the life of the tree, and the spirit of it, until your own personality is gone from the words. When you are gone from the poem, then it’s a poem. Part of you disappears so that you can dance with the spirit of something else.

This sentiment, that the work that he, or any artist, engages in, is a spiritual enterprise designed to erase egoism, would seem to be at odds with most of Kilmer’s iconic movie roles. From Top Gun to Tombstone, Batman, The Saint, and Ghost in the Darkness, Kilmer has more than exceeded all expectations for worldly success. He’s also been known over the years for egotistic behavior. Even now, with throat cancer, which forces him to breathe through a plastic valve and talk in a painful, raspy voice, he attracts myriads of adoring fans at autograph appearances, and he is remembered as one of the top names in the business from the 90’s on up through the present day.

But the portrait of Val Kilmer sketched by directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott, using Kilmer’s own home videos for material, is that of a soul searching for meaning, purpose, identity, and legacy. Indeed, while it appears that Kilmer has always been spiritual (he was raised as, and apparently still is, a member of the Christian Science Church), the Kilmer that emerges after surviving cancer is someone who claims to live his life by faith. “Here on earth,” he tells us, “the difference between heaven and hell is the distance between faith and doubt.”

Faith and doubt is not the only dichotomy the filmmakers want us to think about. In the beginning of the film, Kilmer tells us that, “I’ve wanted to tell a story about acting for a very long time, about the place where you end and the character begins. About truth and illusion,” and, “I’ve lived in the illusion just as much as I have outside of it.”

Perhaps here he is referring to the illusion of Hollywood, of acting, getting paid to play a character for the cameras, and then allowing your likeness to be used by large conglomerates to sell tickets, merchandise, and “dreams,” not just directly through the presence of the movies themselves, but also through a massive publicity machine (which we get to see, behind the curtain, as it were, through the film), from talk shows to Hollywood trade magazines to strategically placed gossip and awards shows. But Kilmer, a graduate of the “serious” and prestigious acting school of Juliard, always sought what he refers to as truth (perhaps he means Truth with a capital T) through the illusion. By pretending to be other human beings, he seeks the truth of universal human nature. For Kilmer, this means creating a performance so true that the audience can see themselves in it. This, he tells us, is what acting is, or at least what it should be in its highest expression. Furthermore, in seeking this truth, it transforms you as a person, and it is this transformation that he seeks. “My mission would be to chase down those roles that would transform me.”

So even though Kilmer was thoroughly entrenched in the Hollywood dream factory, he saw it as a vehicle to explore truth and ultimately to build a legacy by creating space for honest art.

In The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks suggests that there are generally two halves, or “mountains” to life. The first mountain being focused more on egoistic concerns like material success, such as money and comfort, and climbing up the ladder of social status and prestige. It’s easy to see how Kilmer operated in this arena early on in his career.. The second mountain, according to Brooks, is less focused on the ego and more focused on the community, on legacy, and on passing on value to the next generation. In the film we can see that Val’s second mountain is about finding meaning to pass on to his children and to the world that he will one day leave behind.

While the cancer episode has reinforced this sentiment, he was well on that path prior to the diagnosis. First, he hoped to build an artist’s colony on land he’d purchased in New Mexico—“something I could pass on to my children, and their children”—and then the production of a one−man (non−commercial) play called Citizen Twain, where he explores the relationship between Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science Church, and Samuel Clemens. Unlike the overwhelming success of Kilmer’s ‘first mountain’ pursuits, both of these second mountain endeavors were derailed and left unfinished. Ironically, he had to sell his land in Mexico to self−finance the theater version of Citizen Twain, with the hope of raising enough money for a film, and then that was ultimately terminated due to the cancer diagnosis and subsequent damage to his voice.

Of course, the documentary itself is a second mountain pursuit, and fortunately it is one that was finished, even though Val himself feels like it is “incomplete” which fills him with a “profound sadness.” Nevertheless, he uses the time he has left to pour himself into making art of various kinds in his modest Los Angeles studio, a place that he calls his “sacred space,” while he attempts to grapple with the inevitability of death. The final word he (and the filmmakers) leave for us is this snippet from a sermon he heard preached in his little church in Malibu:

Thanks be to God, who has given us victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Our master fully and finally demonstrated divine science in his victory over death and the grave.

While Val himself feels the sense of profound sadness for not having accomplished all that he wanted, it just might be that his story isn’t over yet.

There is a moment in Val, a reflective memoir by Hollywood star, Val Kilmer, where he looks at the camera (he does this a lot) and references a poem by William Butler Yeats:

You see a tree and you observe a truth about the tree, and you are hit with it, the magic of the tree. It’s a spiritual thing, beyond the physical life form of the tree. So then you write and write and write about the form of the tree and the life of the tree, and the spirit of it, until your own personality is gone from the words. When you are gone from the poem, then it’s a poem. Part of you disappears so that you can dance with the spirit of something else.

This sentiment, that the work that he, or any artist, engages in, is a spiritual enterprise designed to erase egoism, would seem to be at odds with most of Kilmer’s iconic movie roles. From Top Gun to Tombstone, Batman, The Saint, and Ghost in the Darkness, Kilmer has more than exceeded all expectations for worldly success. He’s also been known over the years for egotistic behavior. Even now, with throat cancer, which forces him to breathe through a plastic valve and talk in a painful, raspy voice, he attracts myriads of adoring fans at autograph appearances, and he is remembered as one of the top names in the business from the 90’s on up through the present day.

But the portrait of Val Kilmer sketched by directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott, using Kilmer’s own home videos for material, is that of a soul searching for meaning, purpose, identity, and legacy. Indeed, while it appears that Kilmer has always been spiritual (he was raised as, and apparently still is, a member of the Christian Science Church), the Kilmer that emerges after surviving cancer is someone who claims to live his life by faith. “Here on earth,” he tells us, “the difference between heaven and hell is the distance between faith and doubt.”

Faith and doubt is not the only dichotomy the filmmakers want us to think about. In the beginning of the film, Kilmer tells us that, “I’ve wanted to tell a story about acting for a very long time, about the place where you end and the character begins. About truth and illusion,” and, “I’ve lived in the illusion just as much as I have outside of it.”

Perhaps here he is referring to the illusion of Hollywood, of acting, getting paid to play a character for the cameras, and then allowing your likeness to be used by large conglomerates to sell tickets, merchandise, and “dreams,” not just directly through the presence of the movies themselves, but also through a massive publicity machine (which we get to see, behind the curtain, as it were, through the film), from talk shows to Hollywood trade magazines to strategically placed gossip and awards shows. But Kilmer, a graduate of the “serious” and prestigious acting school of Juliard, always sought what he refers to as truth (perhaps he means Truth with a capital T) through the illusion. By pretending to be other human beings, he seeks the truth of universal human nature. For Kilmer, this means creating a performance so true that the audience can see themselves in it. This, he tells us, is what acting is, or at least what it should be in its highest expression. Furthermore, in seeking this truth, it transforms you as a person, and it is this transformation that he seeks. “My mission would be to chase down those roles that would transform me.”

So even though Kilmer was thoroughly entrenched in the Hollywood dream factory, he saw it as a vehicle to explore truth and ultimately to build a legacy by creating space for honest art.

In The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks suggests that there are generally two halves, or “mountains” to life. The first mountain being focused more on egoistic concerns like material success, such as money and comfort, and climbing up the ladder of social status and prestige. It’s easy to see how Kilmer operated in this arena early on in his career.. The second mountain, according to Brooks, is less focused on the ego and more focused on the community, on legacy, and on passing on value to the next generation. In the film we can see that Val’s second mountain is about finding meaning to pass on to his children and to the world that he will one day leave behind.

While the cancer episode has reinforced this sentiment, he was well on that path prior to the diagnosis. First, he hoped to build an artist’s colony on land he’d purchased in New Mexico—“something I could pass on to my children, and their children”—and then the production of a one−man (non−commercial) play called Citizen Twain, where he explores the relationship between Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science Church, and Samuel Clemens. Unlike the overwhelming success of Kilmer’s ‘first mountain’ pursuits, both of these second mountain endeavors were derailed and left unfinished. Ironically, he had to sell his land in Mexico to self−finance the theater version of Citizen Twain, with the hope of raising enough money for a film, and then that was ultimately terminated due to the cancer diagnosis and subsequent damage to his voice.

Of course, the documentary itself is a second mountain pursuit, and fortunately it is one that was finished, even though Val himself feels like it is “incomplete” which fills him with a “profound sadness.” Nevertheless, he uses the time he has left to pour himself into making art of various kinds in his modest Los Angeles studio, a place that he calls his “sacred space,” while he attempts to grapple with the inevitability of death. The final word he (and the filmmakers) leave for us is this snippet from a sermon he heard preached in his little church in Malibu:

Thanks be to God, who has given us victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Our master fully and finally demonstrated divine science in his victory over death and the grave.

While Val himself feels the sense of profound sadness for not having accomplished all that he wanted, it just might be that his story isn’t over yet.

val poster
Justin Wells

Justin Wells is a documentary filmmaker and author. Find more of his work at justinwellsfilms.com.

In How to Film Truth, Justin Wells explores the history of documentary filmmaking as a search for truth by filmmakers, and a journey of discovery for subjects and audiences.