There’s really two schools of indie. That’s what you realize watching director Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013). The documentary is charming and laid-back, much like the two directors it spends time with. Richard Linklater is emblematic of the, forgive me, mainstream of indie filmmakers. He isn’t wholly part of the Hollywood machine, but his films pick up studio distribution. He pushes at the boundaries of conventional narrative with films like the 1991 plotless classic Slacker and his current hit Boyhood (2014). Then there’s truly avant garde filmmaking, as indie as you can get. James Benning follows the just a man and a movie camera tradition, experimenting with film form to make a radically personal, abstract cinema. Two very different directors, but good friends, with more in common than you’d think.
Benning was the first guest in 1985 at Linklater’s newly established Austin Film Society. He showed up at the small local airport hauling a big 35mm film canister in one hand and a scrunched-up paper bag in the other. Inside was a change of socks and underwear for the few days he’d be in town. Linklater was bemused and instantly took to the eccentric filmmaker.
Benning’s movies have explored various avenues over the years, with a consistent formalism of duration and intent. American Dreams (lost and found) (1984) is oddly clever and relentless. The movie takes the diaries of Arthur Bremer, a prototypical psychotic who intended to assassinate Richard Nixon before settling on George Wallace as a lesser target (he failed and partially paralyzed the controversial presidential candidate), and displays them in a sideways scroll of scrawled written text on the bottom of the screen. Juxtaposed above the text are still images taken from Bremer’s collection of Hank Aaron baseball cards. As Benning systematically photographs the front and back of each card, the mundane and craven text of Bremer’s diary rolls past underneath, while on the soundtrack pop songs and news broadcasts from the year each card was issued play along. Why? Benning seizes on the arbitrary fact that Hank Aaron started and ended his career with the Milwaukee Braves, where both Bremer and Benning himself were born, to link these disparate threads together. It sounds pretty random, and at first it’s hard to penetrate, but as the film unspools two threads emerge: Hank Aaron’s pursuit of and eventual breaking of Babe Ruth’s home-run record, and Bremer’s coldly calculated but dismally ineffectual stalking of Richard Nixon. The tension between the two is kept in balance by the soundtrack with poignant, epochal moments like the radio broadcasts from the assassination of JFK to the moon landing and songs from the likes of Elvis and Diana Ross. More than anything, the film underscores the era of tumultuous change America had undergone from 1954 to 1974, and shows both the heights of aspiration for the American Dream, and its ugly mirror image underneath.
Double Play looks at excerpts of Benning’s films as well as bits from many of Linklater’s, including Slacker, Dazed and Confused (1993), the Before Trilogy (Sunrise (1995), Sunset (2004) and Midnight (2012)), Bad News Bears (2005) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). The best moments are when the two men are just hanging, though. They share an easygoing camaraderie, linked by their philosophical approach to film and also a love of baseball. (Interestingly, Linklater went to university on a baseball scholarship, but a heart arrhythmia kept him from pursuing sport. For which we are forever grateful.) Watching them toss a ball back and forth in a field in the woods is so casual and unassuming, as they talk about subverting narrative and the different ways they work to push the boundaries of their craft. They’re each fascinating in their own way, determinedly against the grain. Double Play gets that, casually running around the bases as it knocks it out of the park.
Double Play‘s director Gabe Klinger and James Benning will be present for the film’s screening in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, August 23rd at 6:30pm (info and tickets here). Afterward, James Benning will stick around to introduce a free screening of two of his films, American Dreams (lost and found) and Chicago Loop (info here).