Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater: Venice Review

Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater - H 2013
Low-budget documentary celebrates left-field movie mavericks.

Debut director Gabe Klinger’s Venice prizewinner explores the friendship and working methods of two veteran indie filmmakers.

A low-budget debut feature completed with a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, Double Play has just won the prize for best documentary on cinema at the Venice film festival. Mostly shot over a single weekend in Texas, it offers a joint profile of two American filmmakers from different traditions and generations: the Austin-based indie pioneer Richard Linklater and the veteran avant-garde purist James Benning, whose self-produced films border on abstract visual art.

Director Gabe Klinger, who teaches film in Chicago, maintains a politely detached observational eye, leading to a sometimes arid combination of austere visuals and real-time conversation. This is clearly a deliberate formal choice, with a nod to Linklater’s own rambling and talk-heavy films, but it risks letting some sweet stuff slip away with its lack of guiding authorial voice. All the same, Klinger's sporadically engaging documentary will find a ready-made discerning audience at further festivals and upmarket TV networks. A U.S. release is already lined up via the New York-based digital distributor FilmBuff.

Klinger shoots with quiet confidence and an able team, including crew members who have previously worked for Linklater and fellow Austin, Texas, icon Terrence Malick. The friendship between his two subjects stretches back to the late 1980s, when Linklater invited Benning to be the first out-of-town speaker at the nascent Austin Film Society. The documentary begins with the pair giving another shared talk at the society, then later playing basketball and baseball together at Linklater’s country house in nearby Bastrop. All the while they discuss filmmaking, sport, art and the passing of time.

These conversations are punctuated by archive footage and clips from the pair’s work, most prominently Benning’s experimental 1984 documentary American Dreams and Linklater’s trilogy of dialogue-driven rom-coms starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, culminating in their recent critically acclaimed hit Before Midnight. The film also touches on some of Benning’s more left-field artworks, including building himself a pair of rural cabins in the Sierra Nevada mountains, one modelled on Henry David Thoreau’s humble shack at Walden Pond and the other on Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski’s hut in Montana.

More context on these fascinating side projects, and less navel-gazing discussion about optical printers and editing techniques, might have given Double Play some much-needed breadth and warmth. Klinger is clearly aiming at a hardcore of filmmakers and cinema students, but even that niche audience will only glean incomplete insights into the methods and motivations of his subjects. In fairness, he makes the most of an obviously tight budget, and winning a Venice prize with your debut film is undoubtedly impressive. But for his next project, hopefully Klinger will follow Elvis Presley’s evergreen advice: a little less conversation, a little more action.

Production companies: Bando à Parte, Gladys Glover Films, The Bear Media, Cine+
Producers: Sonia Buchman, Rodrigo Areias, Berndt Mader, Gabe Klinger, Nicolas R. de le Mothe, Eugenio Renzi
Starring: Richard Linklater, James Benning
Director: Gabe Klinger
Cinematographer: Eduard Grau
Editors: Danielle Anezin, Gabe Klinger
Sales company: FilmBuff
Unrated, 70 minutes