Thursday, June 14, 2012

Val Kilmer's Mark Twain and Dave Fenster's Pincus

“What is Val Kilmer thinking?” This question could be taken as one of the central motifs of the 52-year-old actor’s career (as epitomized by his 2004 stage portrayal of Moses in The Ten Commandments – The Musical and the WTF-fest Island of Dr. Moreau) and perhaps an explanation for why so many artists of my acquaintance have an unusual interest – not to say obsession – with his work. Recently, I had the opportunity to plunge into that speculative quagmire by attending one of Kilmer’s performances of Citizen Twain – the one-man workshop play about Mark Twain he writes, directs and stars in – in its two-week run in the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The merch table even offered marble headstones engraved with Twain quotes!

That in itself – with the added perversity of the fact that Hal Holbrook has made the one-man Twain schtick his theatrical stock-in-trade for half a century – would have been enough to pique anyone’s interest, but the backstory pushes this movie star’s venture into community theater territory over the top. Kilmer, a lifelong follower of Christian Science, decided to workshop this portrayal of America’s first modern celebrity as research for Mark Twain & Mary Baker Eddy: A Love Story – a film he’s been working on since at least 2007, when his people uploaded a trailer to youtube.

There’s also a website (, which reveals the sincerity – and Eddy-centric nature of the project. Eddy was the founder of Christian Science, most famous for eschewing conventional medical treatment in favor of healing through prayer. She and Twain never met, but he published a scathing attack on her and her church in 1907, during a period when his always-iffy Presbyterian faith gave way to the almost-mystically solipsistic atheism of his final novel, The Mysterious Stranger.

Val’s people asked that I “not review his performance”, which is too bad (if anyone wants proof of Kilmer’s undiminished chops, check out the little-known 2008 mini-series of Comanche Moon). The only disappointing aspect of the production for me was the lack of emphasis on Eddy, robbing Citizen Twain of the narrative and philosophical twist that could most emphatically distinguish it from Holbrook’s legacy. It may be a bid to court investors by avoiding the appearance of proselytizing, but Kilmer’s bias is evident from the outset, endowing Twain’s ghost with a posthumous verification of the reality of Deity and a tempered - even reversed – assessment of Eddy’s lifework. My advice to Val is forget the executive producers, and amp up the WTF quotient. As far as I know, you only live once!

Director David Fenster’s new film also addresses alternative medical practices - not to mention the interdependence of humor and despair that lay at the heart of Twain’s great American voice. Fenster’s previous feature Trona (2004) was described by critic Scott Foundas as “an evocation of the desolate road poetry remembered from the best films of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch” and screened at MOMA.

Although not technically a member of the Small Form films collective that produced Mike Ott’s celebrated indie film LiTTLEROCK (2010 – now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and netflix streaming from Kino Lormer), Fenster was associated with the group at CalArts, and – like Trona – his new film Pincus features a remarkably assured lead performance by Small Form renaissance dude Dave Nordstrom, whose own writer/director/actor feature trifecta Sawdust City (2011) is still making the festival rounds.

Nordstrom plays the title character, Pincus Finster, an incompetent and/or indifferent building contractor in over his head trying to take over the business his father abandoned after succumbing to Parkinson’s. The father, Paul Finster, is played by the director’s father Paul Fenster, who has lived with Parkinson’s for the past 13 years -which only partly accounts for his unaffected naturalistic performance.

Joining a yoga class to pick up chicks, Pincus begins to explore new age treatments – partly in hopes of helping his Dad, and partly as a manifestation of his own bumbling spiritual yearning. As his contracting business unravels, he allows his one employee – a homeless German drunk – to move into a tent on his father’s property, but after a couple of days Dietmar (the late Dietman Franosch) vanishes, shifting Pincus’ search into a more pragmatic mode. Or so it seems.

Beautifully shot by Fenster, and mimimally but exquisitely scored by John Wood, the deadpan episodic storyline thrums with a formalist glow that imbues Pincus’ low-key existential bewilderment with a sense of impending revelation – a promise fulfilled by one of the most satisfyingly anti-climactic dénouements ever filmed, which manages to veer Fenster’s improvisational autobiographical naturalism towards a magic realism worthy of Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan. Now that’s WTF!

Pincus premiered at the 2012 LA Film Fest, June 14 -24 (

PINCUS (2012)
A film by David Fenster. Starring David Nordstrom, Paul Fenster, Christi Idavoy, and Dietmar Franosch. Directed and Written by David Fenster. Executive Producer Phil Lord. Director of Photography David Fenster. Edited by David Fenster. Music by John Wood. Total running time: 78 mins.

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