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The Benshi From Hell: Val Kilmer’s Musings on "Spartan"

Go tell the Spartans! Val Kilmer at the heroic zenith of the lost art of the DVD commentary.

Spartan (David Mamet, 2004) was quite near the beginning of the artistic sequence that Mamet scholars would eventually call his "early crypto-fascist period"—certainly a good dozen years before his bizarre, Kaufmanesque wrestling matches with Tariq Ramadan, complete with veiled ringside girls, on Al-Jazeera.  About the film itself, critics were brutal. One of them called it "unimaginably crude – the Pickup on South Street (1) of the so-called War on Terror." Another said, "watching this film makes me want to commit innocent but suspicious acts deserving of a good waterboarding in Guantanamo." Despite the down-beat & cryptic patriotism of the film, it was not a success. Warner Brothers, sifting through the testing data, eventually fingered its too mild anti-Arabian racism. Mamet was forced to move the idea to television where he re-conceived the material for the series The Unit, primarily, the cynics said, as a way to get singing gigs for his wife, Scottish folkstress Rebecca Pidgeon. Much to everyone’s surprise, the show was a mega-hit for CBS.

Val Kilmer, who starred in Spartan as super-operative Bobby Scott, eventually distanced himself from the film, blaming it unfairly perhaps, for the end of his career. But at the time, he recorded a brilliant alternate soundtrack for the Digital Versatile Disc, a now deservedly little known and extinct low resolution media format. I managed to secure a copy of the commentary that had been transferred to 180 gram vinyl by persons unknown. I was able to stream the film silently over my home v-system, and using careful experimental research, and determining approximate synch points, I was able to replicate the original commentary experience.

Allow me to briefly explain that up to this point, the audio commentary was one of the main ways the studios created the fabled sense of surplus value on the so-called DVD. They were usually filled with appalling "featurettes" crammed with tedious details of how the film was made, extra footage, etc. Only half-wits watched these things, which usually consisted of overgenerous clips from the film that one had already & regrettably seen. But the audio commentaries were another matter. They would often bring in noted film scholars, like Christina Aguilera, brandishing stale notes that had put generations of film students to sleep, to seriously expound on the stylistic virtues of the film in question, or the filmmakers themselves would get drunk and excavate whatever random thoughts rattled through their minds. Oversight on these was low or non-existent. On Glory, Edward Zwick infamously brought a sex worker from Jumbo's Clown Room and asked her at great length what she thought of the film. And of course, people had tried realistic dubbing of entire films for a variety of purposes—but this produced work that was inevitably shoddy in its imprecision. It was left for Val Kilmer to recover the ancient & primitive poetics of the Benshi, and trailblaze.

A word of warning. Whatever you do, never attempt to watch Spartan without the commentary. You will get nothing. It will seem to you like a GDR musical without harmonies, with burnt-in illegible & pidgin subtitles. Show it to your friends in this way and your friends will hate you. What Kilmer does in this commentary is completely without precedent. While enacting a simultaneous one-man parody of a Hollywood "roast" (he refers affectionately to the director as Daveed Mamé) AND at the same time performing in the character of "Val Kilmer," a stereotypically wounded and monstrously self-involved celebrity, Kilmer the actor manages to add profound insight and gravitas to what is, admittedly, a ludicrous (2) and confusing B-picture. And, it bears saying, he negotiates this complex performative nexus completely extemporaneously.

The first time I saw the film, in the theatre, it struck me as average and workmanlike. But upon hearing it supercharged with the commentary, I saw for the first time that Mamet had been reborn as a master. By deliberately choosing inferior, even sloppy material of his own devising, he had freed himself to have fun à la Gerd Oswald or even at the more rarefied and sublime atmospheres of Joseph H. Lewis. The film becomes dense with coups de cinema. The logorrheist becomes—at long last—a cinema stylist. At risk of sounding ridiculous, I will say that there is something of sorcery in this commentary track. Look at the result—Redbelt, Mamet's next film, is at an even higher level. Mamet finally delivers a devastating emotional moment (these had always been rather chilly and theoretical in earlier films) and thus secured in his cinematic identity, he's able to go on to become the cinema colossus we’ve come to recognize in the kinder light of time.

Using only the mellifluous insinuations of his voice, Kilmer manages to completely transform an ordinary film of the early century into a true masterpiece. One would have to go back to the fountainhead, Kovacs, to find such a dexterous and judicious use of absolute flippancy. But not just Kovacs, Marguerite Duras! Remember how just the intonations of her voice shifted Le camion from the territory of a dreary art film into that enduring, eternal Murder of the Cinema… Kilmer addresses the complete opacity of the masquerading Brechtian killer he is playing in the image with his own voluble countertext. Silent Killer, Chatty Kilmer. The performance, both the one in Mamet's film, and the one floating on the soundtrack are Kilmer's finest moment. It is like watching an existential duel. He hilariously complains that he read the script hundreds of times and still doesn’t understand much of the plot mechanics. Isn't this like something out of Pirandello or Doris Wishman? And it is unfortunately impossible today to duplicate the ferocity of the moment when Agent Scott kills his nemesis by stabbing him in the throat, and we hear Kilmer mimicking our own thoughts, as if inside of us: "Eeesh, that’s gotta hurt." Or the poignancy of the moment, where surveying the final devastation, he comments: "Tough… Everyone's shot." Or when he gestures to what is obviously fake blood on the ground, and says that’s my actual blood. I can’t think of a better critique of cinematic representation, can you? But at the same time, it speaks something deep about the actor’s indomitable spirit—that he believes this nonsense—his complete and utterly vulnerable suggestibility. One is struck with awe.

At one point, Kilmer makes the claim that a historic plaque in what looks like a Cambridge alley is a fake, that it has the names of cast members on it. It seems like more of his childish comic fabulation. I took some trouble with a 600x frame enlargement of the prop, with a customized Yoyodyne sharpening filter, and in this case, Kilmer is absolutely correct. It bears the name of every cast and crew member except, strangely, that of Val Kilmer.

Later, Kilmer deliberately calls up for critique Walter Benjamin's ideas in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, without mentioning the philosophe or the work, naturally. He wonders about the irony of technical progress that resulted in the DVD, a medium whose random access qualities and chapter structure had made it possible for people to easily watch visual material (magical fragments) again and again, experiencing them ritually as Presence, as opposed to only in dreary, unfactish memory—a restoration of the aura made possible through mechanical reproduction. He suggests (not implausibly) that this is why DVD's became so popular and such a glorious commercial success. A success, however, that was not to last…as we now know.

Years later, when Kilmer made Twixt with Francis Ford Coppola, which went on to win 17 Academy Awards, lawyers persuaded the ungrateful, miserly Coppola not to allow Kilmer his contractual right to a DVD commentary. You can now see what a great historical and aesthetic loss this was. Kilmer's slot was given to Roman Coppola who had taken about 40 seconds of completely unremarkable second unit material. In return, Kilmer received two cases of corked 2010 Diamond Alicante Bouschet. (3) Just two months later, production shut down at the last two remaining DVD manufacture facilities in Croatia, thus silencing forever the brief Golden Era of Audio Commentary.

We will never know what other masterworks might have been produced by this promising yet cruelly stilled ecosystem of alternate soundtracks.


1. Or the more familiar Port of Drugs, for those readers living in the Administrative Prefectures or Free Cities of the Holy Roman Empire ver. 2.0.

2. In Mamet’s universe of wild fancy, White Slavers watch Turner Classic Movies.

3. Author’s communication with V. Kilmer at Sunshine Station Bar & Package Liquors, a gas station and bar in Ribera, New Mexico.

How exciting! A so-called ‘underground film’ (in the Manny Farber sense) made during my lifetime. I’ll be sure to find a copy at my local university library.
I don't get this essay. Makes no sense.

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