Portrait of an Artist on Fire: Documenting Trauma in Val and One More Time with Feeling

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“I don’t think life is a story. We all hope it is,” Nick Cave ruminates, as he sits in the back of a car careening through the streets of London, clutching his coffee cup and glancing out the window. He intermittently turns his face to look at director Andrew Dominik, who’s asking questions meant to prod Cave’s insight into his music, and his life, and his creative process, and the horrific event which has altered the course of all three. Life isn’t a story, but narratives are how we make sense of life—the same way Cave’s songs once functioned as stories to make sense of his own, and the way Dominik’s 2016 documentary One More Time with Feeling attempts to make sense of loss.

In 2015, the same year that a fall from a cliff in Ovingdean, England claimed the life of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son Arthur, actor Val Kilmer was rushed to the hospital for what his representatives said was thought to be a possible tumor. Kilmer later refuted these claims, and it was revealed in 2017 that he had been battling throat cancer for the past two years. After undergoing chemotherapy and two tracheotomies, Kilmer had been given a clean bill of health, but treatment left him permanently hindered. It greatly weakened the quality of his voice, making him short of breath. Along with a feeding tube implanted, since he can no longer eat, Kilmer speaks through the use of a voice box attached to his neck. It is equipped with a button that he must push to momentarily cut off air flow, so that he may communicate in a near-unintelligible croak.

But in Val, Leo Scott and Ting Poo’s documentary on the prolific actor and his struggle to move forward while still recovering, the 61-year-old actor assures us that he sounds worse than he feels; that his audible and visible trauma do not reflect how he’s doing on the inside. Conversely, in One More Time with Feeling, Cave appears, by all accounts, like a normal, unscathed human being—otherwise functioning at full capacity. Yet the weight of his internal anguish pulls every aspect of his being down as if shackled to an anvil, the physicality of which translates seamlessly, discomfortingly to film. In different ways, for better or worse, the two artists carry their hurt on their sleeves. One has been dealt tangible scars that an audience may wince to endure, and though the other’s does not manifest in an unsettlingly altered visage or an electronic rasp, there is body language that has been permanently fatigued by an invisible force. Centered on two incredibly disparate artistic personas, grappling with tragedy in largely opposing ways, Val and One More Time with Feeling nonetheless share blood. They are not just portraits of artists, but documentations of how artists continue to create in the wake of trauma.

When we first see Cave in One More Time with Feeling, he’s idling at a desk in a hotel room, awaiting directions from the documentary crew and Dominik about what to do, and where to go, how to look, and whether he needs to do something a second time. He’s agitated, but not angry. He notes the “ridiculous 3-D, black-and-white camera” the filmmakers are using, through a voiceover which hovers like an internal monologue over the rest of the film. He does as he’s instructed. He makes no real fuss, but it’s as if he lacks the energy to do so. He seems tired, but not from lack of sleep. The disarray in the attempt at this sequence is left in the film rather than what was seemingly intended, but it offers the first glimpse at the Australian musician carrying himself as if he’s wading through a marsh. Just two years prior, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard had created a dramatized documentary recording a day in the life of the iconic rock star and front man of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In 20,000 Days on Earth, genuine interactions with people in Cave’s life are linked by a loosely manufactured narrative thread and several framing devices, which manage to paint an engaging and candid picture of Cave as he is now and Cave as he once was, rather than chronicling his life from beginning to end. In the 2014 film, Cave possesses his innate brooding aura but is nonetheless full of life, propelled from one scene to the next by people, and conversation, and music. In 2016, Cave moves his body as if he has to. As if his presence from shot to shot is only by virtue of him being alive.

Kilmer and Cave’s traumas are not the same, but the living documents which depict them working to reclaim artistic impetus materialized in not altogether different ways. Starting from a young age, Kilmer has continued to amass over 800 hours of film from his life, made up of home videos, audition tapes, behind-the-scenes footage from his major movies, and short films he made with his siblings as children. Becoming acquainted with this vast archive after working with director Harmony Korine on a short film starring Kilmer in 2012, Val co-director Leo Scott began collaborating with Kilmer and helping to digitize his extensive video material. When throat cancer stole Kilmer’s ability to turn his one-man show Citizen Twain into a film, a new idea was born. Kilmer had always wanted to tell a story about acting. Now that one of his essential tools for doing what he loved the most had been taken from him, he felt more compelled than ever to tell his story.

One More Time with Feeling came about when Cave, in the midst of recording the Bad Seeds’ sixteenth studio album The Skeleton Tree, was struck by the tragic death of his teenage son. Six months after the event, Cave sees the somber, meditative album through to completion, but can’t bear the thought of facing questions about his son and his grief during promotion. So, he outsourced it to his personal friend Dominik—who worked with Cave and close collaborator Warren Ellis on the score for his 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Cave financed and commissioned a film that operates as a safe space from press, where he could answer difficult questions publicly while still in an environment that he can control. The film is stitched together by way of intimate moments between Cave and his family, his artistic collaborators, his own self-reflection, and in-studio performances and recordings of songs from the album. In both cases, the respective documentaries emerged as a direct response to a traumatic event, and as a means for their subjects to regain autonomy—over their art, their narratives and the way that they are perceived by the world. In his occasionally lyrical voiceover, weaving anecdotes with original poetry, Cave describes an experience in a bakery shortly after his son died. A room full of kind strangers offered their condolences to him, but Cave, while appreciative, couldn’t help feeling resentful. “When did you become an object of pity?” he asks himself.

It’s a moment which directly parallels one in Val, where Kilmer grapples with the idea that he’s selling his old self and career at celebrity autograph signings and Comic Cons. There is an air of pity inescapable among the hoard of overly adoring fans lined up to make transient, superficial memories with the actor. Kilmer can’t escape the feeling that the way that he now sounds and looks—his formerly thick neck and bulky frame now greatly reduced, his face rendered a puffy, constricted version of its former handsomeness—is “an obstacle that’s present with whoever sees me.” As Cave had also reflected of himself in the way that his trauma entirely changed him, Kilmer’s own tragedy forced him to renegotiate his position in a world that remained unaltered, aside from his placement within it. A world where the art he once gave all of himself to can no longer accommodate him.

Nevertheless, Kilmer relents that he is grateful for his fans but, still, he doesn’t seem too sure. It’s something that was taken from both artists in the wake of their traumas: A belief in oneself and in their ability to do what they love. Kilmer fell into depression over the thought of his career being over. Cave could not generate creativity from such a calamitous loss. Such feelings are furthered as one draws closer to twilight age, Cave admitting that doing what he does—music, performing—becomes more of a struggle with each added year. “You decay…and diminish,” he explains soberly, when Dominik asks how he deals with his own mortality. Diminishing—like Kilmer and his shrunken form, or Cave, described by Dominik as a battered monument. “Fuck, what happened to my face?” Cave bemoans at the bags under his eyes that he swears weren’t there one year prior. What can’t help but hang over Kilmer, in spite of a rehabilitated outlook on his condition and his path forward, is the sense that the actor feels he hadn’t yet produced his best cinematic work. This self-perceived failure to be taken seriously as an artist tugs at his rosy platitudes about hope, and healing, and self. He’s still the guy who once played a lesser Batman, and not long after the role in Joel Schumacher’s superhero film, juicier, high-profile roles began to taper off.

Finally, in late middle age, Kilmer reignited his artistic spark with Citizen Twain: A one-man stage production on the life of Mark Twain. In it, Kilmer portrays the prominent, 19th century American author whom he’s been fascinated with throughout his life, playing to the largely dramatic actor’s natural comedic strengths. The successful show received acclaim, with Kilmer hoping to take it to Broadway and adapt it to film, until fate cruelly dealt its hand as he prepared for a show in Nashville in 2015. It was there that Kilmer suddenly lost his voice, and what was thought to be a months-long recovery not only turned into years, but a recovery from which he would never fully mend. Though Cave has never stopped producing well-received albums—all of which are self-financed—tangentially to his occasional work in film, his trauma made it so that he could no longer generate the art he once did. How can you go back to creating when you’re no longer the same person?

Well, you adapt, and you move forward, if not necessarily onward—or, like Cave’s wife, model-turned-designer Susie Bick, your passion suddenly becomes a necessity to pull you out of your grief. Towards the end of One More Time with Feeling, Cave compares pushing past trauma to a rubber band. Life goes on, the days lapse and one moves on by all accounts, but there is only so far you can get from a cataclysmic event before you snap back to it. Kilmer has his painting, his scrapbooking, his Los Angeles art studio and now this documentary to tell his stories through art in new ways—but his cancer will always snap him back to his first love, to acting, which he can never again embrace as he once did. Trauma will always be there, a fissure ripped into your past, present and future.

But Cave doesn’t believe that past, present and future are all happening at once, something that was told to him by a friend in the aftermath of his son’s death. Cave only believes in his present, in his consciousness that exists right now, for this small window of time, that negates the insignificance and impermanence of his art in comparison to a universe which will never know a consciousness at all. Still, there is Jack Kilmer and Earl Cave—the men’s adult sons, now both in their twenties, the latter of whom was twin brother to Arthur. Both Jack and Earl function as linkages through time in their respective films. Jack’s voice serves as his father’s narration in Val and an eerie echo of Kilmer’s former self, while Earl is featured in a song previously recorded with Arthur that plays during One More Time with Feeling’s end credits, the two boys’ voices both beautiful and nearly indistinguishable. Jack Kilmer and Earl Cave are both alive, and also ghosts. They carry with them the weight of the past, but they also hold the promise of the future.

In spite of obvious distinctions between the musician and actor, Nick Cave and Val Kilmer are artists whose respective confrontations with mortality were accelerated by unimaginable blows in the midst of their artistic lives. And at some point during their grieving process, Cave and Bick decided to choose happiness—to be happy as an act of revenge against their pain. Kilmer explains through Jack’s voice that “healing is not born of vanity; it is born of honesty.” In a way, it’s what these documentaries are trying to do: Give their wounded artists the space for honesty with themselves, their legacy, and their craft so that they may find a way to carry on. Val Kilmer is still desperately searching for his most meaningful role, but he has also found it. Nick Cave does not view his trauma in the same way as Kilmer, but both of them are still here, still creating, still very much alive. They are anchored and inspired by the unrelenting present, and their present is “bigger in magnitude than all the stars and planets and galaxies,” as Cave says. It is also bigger than their grief.

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.