Val Kilmer as Mark Twain
Val Kilmer is standing on the stage of the Clay Theater and his microphone won’t work. He slumps over, hanging his arms, the classic representation of comical dejection. From the packed house comes a feminine voice, shouting: “I’m your huckleberry!” Without missing a beat, Kilmer mimes and mouths back: “No, I’m your huckleberry.” There’s something wrong with his voice tonight…
It’s the San Francisco premiere of Kilmer’s film, “Cinema Twain,” which is a recording of a live performance of his one-man show “Citizen Twain.” After a brief question-and-answer session, the lights fall, the credits roll and the first sound is the crunch of distorted guitars. Wait? Rock and Roll? Isn’t this about Mark Twain? “With the lights out it’s less dangerous…” Wait…Nirvana? Yes. We’re listening to Mark Twain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Well, the Immortal Mark Twain singing Nirvana, at least…
“Here we are now,” says Kilmer as Twain. “Enter-Twain us.”
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Heh. The first of several puns for the evening.
Apparently this is not to be a serious dramatic interpretation of Twain — or is it? The cigar-toting mustachioed man in the white suit explains that he is dead, though he does not realize it, and knows that he is in Pasadena in 2013. He makes notes to himself about jokes that don’t work in this time period. It gradually becomes clear that the show is basically Val Kilmer doing standup in the character of Mark Twain. Wacky.
A light shines on the stage where the Good Lord has dropped a newspaper. It proclaims that Twain is to give a sermon in Pasadena in 2013. “Well, if I’m to give a sermon,” says Twain, er, I mean, Kilmer. “How about a sermon on truth and illusion?” And what follows is nothing short of that.
Earlier, during the opening question-and-answer period, Kilmer explained how he’s spent 15 years working on this show. The idea originally occurred to Kilmer while considering the conflict between Mary Eddy Baker and Twain. The last years of Twain’s life were spent pondering his professional relationship to Eddy, who he apparently considered to be the most eminent female writer of their day, despite him accusing her of plagiarism at one point. But I digress. For while this unique interplay seems to fascinate Kilmer, he’s had the good sense to realize that it may not necessarily captivate you, I, or the general populace.
Instead Kilmer bent himself to the task of honing Twain’s writing into something palpable for a modern audience, at times making it hard to tell what came from Twain and what was added by Kilmer. (“You know the difference between prayer in the church and prayer in the casino? In the casino, they really mean it! And do you know why the Dali Lama likes the casino? Well, he loves Tibet!”) To borrow a word that gets bandied about throughout the film, Kilmer has found a way to fructify Twain’s works into a modern, one-man show.
“Words form the ladder to my heaven,” proclaims Twain, in his white suit and sneakers. Yes, sneakers. “Writing is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” It is certainly a joke, but what you suspect is true, gentle reader: there is no way to fake honesty, and that’s what makes true art so painful and rare. There ain’t no fakin’ the funk. Kilmer later expresses his regret that with our new president elect, “the very word truth has come into question.”
The show gives a loose biography of Twain, er, I mean, Samuel Clemens who grew up in Missouri, with a father who had slaves. “I named myself Mark Twain…because it reminds me of me,” he jokes. Again, the joke is full of truth. Twain was a happy steamboat captain but was forced to leave the south during the Civil War. “I joined the confederate side but deserted after two weeks. Then the Confederacy fell. Coincidence? I think not.”
A joke again, but this is perhaps the crux of Kilmer’s play: the insight into what motivated Clemens to twist himself so eloquently into Twain. There was once a happy riverboat captain forced to leave his river, a river he wrote of in breath-taking beauty and with longing. That would-be riverboat captain still stands as the literary giant of our nation, his white suit and cigar towering high above Kerouac, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck. With time, we may find Tom Robins sitting at the same table but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that we, America, drove him towards greatness with our lie that one color of skin was better than the other. And the man that had known the silent truth of the Mississippi river at dawn reluctantly became that word-smithing colossus. “I became a newspaper man,” Twain jokes. “I hated to do it but I couldn’t find honest employment.”
After a stunning and balls-to-the-walls-serious-dramatic interpretation of the foggy river scene of Jim and Huck from “Huckleberry Finn” (which, if you’ve never read…) as well as nod to Quentin Tarantino’s similar and multitudinous utilization of the word “nigger,” Kilmer takes questions.
“Having played action roles, was it hard to get people to take this seriously?” Asks a mustachioed reporter from BrokeAssStuart.com.
“Well, I don’t know if we have credits here,” says Kilmer, motioning to the screen behind him. “But I produced it, I directed it. I’m financing it.” A ripple of laughter rounds the room. “…but when someone has a vision and sticks to it, people come around… Usually when someone is really harsh online about this being absurd, I agree with them. It seems to shut them up.”
The last audience comment of the evening comes from Bay Area actor and musician Zachariah Mose (who also joked earlier about Kilmer impersonating Marlon Brando. “No,” I’m talking wike vis because my tongue is swollen,” responds Kilmer. “Bewieve me, I wash I was jokind.”). Mose speaks of his own personal history arriving in America by two boats: one voluntarily from Europe to Plymouth Rock and another coming involuntarily from Africa. “I want to thank you,” he says, almost seeming to be thanking Twain more than Kilmer. “The ‘Diary of Adam and Eve,’ those words were the first thing that made sense to me as a mixed person growing up in a society that’s fractured and fructulated up.”
After applause from the room, Kilmer says: “On that note, I think we should end there.”