Gabe Klinger’s unique, intimate film debuted at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion for Documentary on Cinema; earlier this year it received a one-week theatrical run at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, the East Village’s storied venue for avant-garde and experimental film. This makes sense; James Benning’s films have unspooled at Anthology many times over the years. On the other hand, Richard Linklater’s work is not really the stuff you’d typically expect the experimental crowd to connect with. But no matter. Linklater is currently enjoying the greatest success of his career with films that represent a refinement, possibly a perfection, of his authorial approach. The trifecta of Bernie (2011), Before Midnight (2013) and Boyhood (2014) clearly shows an artist at the height of his powers.
Both Benning and Linklater are highly individual film artists, making movies in their own way and producing cinema that could never be mistaken for anyone else’s work. Still, Double Play is likely to be surprising to many viewers simply because the idea of even connecting Benning and Linklater may be counterintuitive. But what’s interesting about these two particular filmmakers is that each has a particular approach to film form, temporal organization and narrative conventions that places them at odds with their own adopted genres or media. Unlike many avant-gardists, Benning works almost exclusively at feature length, relies on the straightforward realism of the film image and is concerned with the social and political ramifications of the events and landscapes he frames. This makes Benning’s films more accessible than many experimental films, but still somehow not quite populist enough for the mainstream.
Likewise, Linklater has abjured the conflict/resolution structure of dominant narrative filmmaking, as far back as his feature debut Slacker (1991). He has experimented with highly unconventional forms, such as rotoscoped animation (2001’s Waking Life, 2006’s A Scanner Darkly), creative nonfiction (2006’s Fast Food Nation), and improvisation as a way to achieve contact points between the fictional and diegetic worlds (the three Before films). Of course, Linklater is in no way averse to making somewhat broader entertainments, such as The School of Rock (2003). But despite Linklater’s sidelong approach to narrative filmmaking, he tends not to be thought of as a form-busting international auteur on the order of Paul Thomas Anderson or James Gray, much less an avant-gardist like Benning.
With its combination of conceptual audacity and formal mastery, it seems like Boyhood may be changing all that. In Double Play, we see moments of Linklater working on Boyhood, along with other clips of Linklater and Benning working on their own projects. But a great deal of Double Play consists of the two men talking with each other about their work and aesthetics, how they tend to see the function and promise of cinema in highly similar ways. Both men came to filmmaking from other careers (Linklater from working on an oil rig; Benning from studying mathematics and working odd jobs), and were largely self-taught cineastes. And both understand that film is a process of organizing time.
When you look at the kinds of films that both Benning and Linklater make—patient, concentrated, sometimes meandering, frequently populated by rugged, seldom-seen figures from the Midwest and the South—it’s not entirely surprising that these men are baseball aficionados and both played ball for awhile. This is a minor bit of trivia that Klinger wisely expands into the governing metaphor for Double Play, and it turns out to be surprisingly relevant beyond being a simple common quirk of the subjects’ biographies. Baseball takes a certain kind of temperament, the ability to appreciate a relaxed, loping rhythm, occasionally punctuated by some burst of agitated activity. Many of the plays in baseball are routine, the pleasure in watching them coming from observing competent professionals working as a team. This is why so many basketball and hockey fans get bored with baseball, or bitch about futbol/soccer being a game that can end in a tie. So-called “slow cinema,” filmmaking concerned with negative space and mundane activity rather than with standard Aristotelian drama, is not unlike baseball or soccer in a similar respect. Our days typically aren’t characterized by scoring rallies. Mostly we’re playing defense.