At some point in their film education, budding cinephiles begin to gleefully uncover the wealth of films that have been made about filmmakers themselves. Famous examples range from straight-forward career-spanning documentary (like Peter Bogdanovich’s “Directed by John Ford”) to lyrical homage (Wim Wenders’ “Tokyo-Ga” and “Lightning over Water,” about Yasujiro Ozu and Nicholas Ray, respectively) to tossed-off goofs (Godard’s typically obtuse encounter with Woody Allen, “Meetin’ WA.”) These films regularly pad out the bonus features of special edition disc releases, only occasionally being left to stand on their own.
Fresh off its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Venizia Classici Award for Best Documentary on Cinema, “Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater,” directed by the Chicago film scholar and teacher Gabe Klinger, is at once a part of and apart from this tradition. It’s a loving chronicle of a moment in the pair’s long friendship, as well as a meditation on the passage of time, both on and off screen.
We meet the two directors in Austin, at a former airport where the hangars now house the offices and sound stages of a film studio. Linklater keeps his office here, in a double wide trailer with walls covered floor to ceiling in vintage cinema posters. The pair’s feature-length discussion begins here, and we follow as they meander to parts elsewhere in Texas, including Linklater’s home, and the shooting locations of several of his films. They talk about film, yes, but they talk about sports, too, and the bemusing ways in which the themes of their films entangle and intermingle with life itself.
The dynamic between Linklater and Benning is a part teacher-student, and part father-son. The two are shown throwing around a baseball at Linklater’s country home, but their ongoing conversation takes a more academic turn when they put down their mitts and sit for lunch. Benning, 70, wears the air of teacher and elder comfortably, posing questions to Linklater the way he might to a student during office hours. Linklater, 53, comes across as talky and gregarious, his still-youthful drawl sounding nearly exactly as it did in the opening scene of his breakthrough film “Slacker” in 1991. Throughout, Klinger peppers in snippets from the directors’ films, occasionally cutting multiple films together into playful montages that reinforce wonderfully “Double Play’s” themes of the passage of time (of special interest is the brief glimpse of footage we see from Linklater’s upcoming film “Boyhood,” a coming-of-age film which has been shot over the course of ten years and depicts the characters aging in one year increments.)
These films are catnip for cinema obsessives, offering rare glimpses into the working lives of their revered auteurs. Klinger’s film diverges from many of the more rigid attempts in the genre in that it wisely makes no attempt to be comprehensive. Instead, the film rests comfortably on the pair’s relationship, offering insights into what might have brought the filmmakers closer through the years, and examining the progression of time and place throughout their work. The film is totally successful in its comparisons, ultimately leaving the viewer with a clear, deeper understanding of the directors’ work. The two look back at shared experiences in their work and in their lives, reminiscing on times and films past and present. They remember Austin as it was, and themselves as they were.
It’s a straight-forward approach, and though the description might sound corny, the execution is compelling, loose and honest. Klinger admits that Benning and Linklater are among his heroes, but his film is thankfully much less a fawning bit of worship than a comfortable, modestly scaled portrait of the camaraderie the two men share. Both are effusive in their praise for each other’s work. Their friendship is warm and inviting.
The film was funded partially through a Kickstarter campaign, and it’s the best example yet of a crowd-funded film that really delivers on its promise. Read the list of contributors in the closing credits—it’s a murderer’s row of critics, filmmakers and programmers, a clear indication that many folks in a position to know decided that this film would be worth a look. I doubt any will be disappointed in the return on their investment.
During a Q&A at the film’s first North American showing at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, Klinger said that it was a “small film,” and in a way it is, but it coheres wonderfully into something much larger and more satisfying than typical talking-head doc fare. Even those not inherently interested in the lives and works of these two filmmakers may find themselves engrossed in the film’s look at two old friends, growing older in their life and in their work, looking ahead and looking back.