Val Kilmer’s 2021 documentary directed and produced by Leo Scott and Ting Poo fuses 1000s of hours of personal footage—videotapes and film reels—into an almost 2-hour film. In the first scene, Val is wearing a button-down shirt sharpied with the quote, “Islam means surrender.”
Actor Val Kilmer slips on gargantuan turquoise and silver bracelets, rings, and necklaces. He sits on the floor cutting out images and words from magazines, his hand gripping scissors or a glue bottle, cutting and gluing, cutting and gluing—assembling before time runs out before his hands can no longer trim, can no longer paste.
Even though Val admits to the audience that this is not the fullness of what he’s compiled in his archives, that it’s an incomplete telling, a glimpse into something vast, many reviewers focus on what the film doesn’t expose by spotlighting attention on his alleged affairs and bad behavior on set.
As a memoirist and artist, Val has every right to disclose what he chooses. Don’t we all deserve dignity, the right to conceal and reveal the parts of ourselves we choose?
I find myself focusing not on what the critics say is missing, but on the generosity of Val opening up his life for us to see—his life of yore but also the challenges of being unable to use the voice that made him famous in films such as Tombstone, Top Gun, and Batman Forever.
Film reels and journals created when he wasn’t expecting a global audience solidify his life, saying: I lived. I lived. Isn’t that what most of us want, to be remembered?
As much as Val meticulously records his life, his collections will never be enough. He can never gather enough; grasp enough of his life, no matter how hard he tries. Life passes too quickly—he, we, can’t catch up.
Val pries open cardboard boxes and metal vaults, uncovering memories of his past. He peeks inside where there are no longer clear boundaries but blurriness—where transcendence occurs. His documentary is a plea to inscribe the world with his name, his words, his art, the legacy he chooses to leave behind.
What is seeping out, unable to be contained?
Not all humans collect and maintain an archive. A select few do, and this is where the interest in Val Kilmer lies. Rather than reviewing the movie based on a traditional storybook structure, perhaps we should view Val as a 3-D memoir, an art installation, a living memorial, an homage to a man’s duteous collecting.
Val is a man of nostalgia, yearning, desire—a man grasping onto a past, reminiscing about the brother he lost due to an epileptic seizure. Like Mark Twain losing a daughter to drowning, two fathers (Val’s and Twain) lose their children submerged in water. Regardless of talent, fame, or money, no one, not even the Kilmer brothers, is spared death or disease, dis-ease. What happens when we take our last breath?
Val has more than 40 years of raw footage of his life. Yet, his recordings will always be incomplete, and this is the sadness of the documentary—the inability to ever truly capture a life, regardless of the meticulousness of the archivist.
Val isn’t a “tell-all,” an interview, or a documentary based on someone else’s telling of the life of an artist who has died. It’s a living testament to what one man has chosen to share. We have a window into Val’s monster genius, his bullheadedness to his art.
Val has an eye to see the world patterned, layered, colorful, yet intricately designed like his journals. His art may look messy, but if you look more closely, you see order. You see it in his clothes too, how his hats match his emotions. When he’s on his way to Arizona to spread his mother’s ashes, he wears a baseball cap with a map of AZ. Pink socks, red shoes. The details. Val is telling us a nuanced story.
Images speak louder than words. If we listen, they say it all. If we watch his hands gluing, the fatness of his marker choice, we see Val. Val is transparent. He is on the screen, handing us an invitation.
Heartbreak weaves throughout the story. Not only does Val lose his brother Wesley, but also his dad, who becomes vacant after his son’s death. We also experience his heartbreak through seeing his childhood and his children’s childhood whizzed past.
Val isn’t relinquishing his past as so many do. He’s giving it new life as all great storytellers do, securing it for him and future generations. Val does what most of us wish we had done, wish we could do. He’s an archivist: he collects, gathers, assembles, and chronicles, so others after him don’t need to. He holds onto memories.
Why can’t we call Val Kilmer a hagiographer in the best way? Each of our lives is extraordinary. Val only documented his.
Watch as Val paints red and black emblazoned faces. Spray paints the word God, God, God, in color, in cutouts. Let your eyes fester on Val’s journals. Focus on his handwriting, the size of his lettering, what he covers over in his journal collages.
Ask: What happens when we lose our voice? What survives us?
Dr. Tamara MC is an Applied Linguist who researches language, culture, and identity in the Middle East and beyond. She’s the Founder/President of Muslim Jewish Love, a nonprofit that spreads peace, love, and joy between Muslims and Jews worldwide. Dr. MC studied Poetry and Nonfiction at Columbia University. She’s been awarded residencies and fellowships at BreadLoaf, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Sewanee, Ragdale, and Vermont Studio Center. She’s published in Salon, The Independent, Parents Magazine, Food52, and Tiny House Magazine. She was awarded the Pauline Scheer Fellowship and recently graduated from GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator. She wrote her debut memoir, Child Bride: My Islamic Temporary Marriage, for which she is seeking representation.