Gabe Klinger's Double Play is a tidy documentary about two creative brains: directors James Benning and Richard Linklater. Benning, the elder of the two, shoots austerely beautiful experimental films that force the audience to, say, stare at seagulls swooshing across a mirrored pond. (The irony of people needing to huddle indoors to appreciate nature isn't lost on him.) Back when Linklater was just another wannabe Austin artist — albeit, more ambitious than most — he was one of Benning's biggest fans. In 1988, the year before he made Slacker, Linklater launched the Austin Film Society and short-listed Benning, then a stranger, as one of his dream guests.
Now decades into their friendship, Benning has flown back to Texas for a visit, and Klinger tags behind the two men as they try to pin down what draws them together. One surprising answer: baseball. As bored, suburban children, both were way more passionate about making it in the major leagues than making it in Hollywood (not that either ever became that interested in that, either). There's something oddly vulnerable about watching the men play catch, then challenge one another to some heavy-breathing one-on-one on the basketball court. Admits Linklater, "Delusion is important in sports and in arts. No matter how good you are, you have to think you're a little better than you are."
It's less interesting watching them do what they both feel they have to do — talk about their craft — especially as both give off the prickly energy of artists who would rather create than explain. They're more comfortable asking one another questions, even though the answers are shrugged off humbly. Linklater, in particular, cannot take a compliment. When Benning says he admired how Before Sunrise pared down the narrative romance, he demurs that compared to Benning's art pieces, his own films are still manipulative, just "disguised better, perhaps."
Double Play: Directed by Gabe Klinger. Available on demand.
Despite Benning and Linklater's best efforts to remain enigmatic, Double Play prods us to reexamine their careers through the realization that while we see their filmographies linearly — a chronicle of directors honing their voices — we forget about how filmmakers influence one another, not just in their final features but in their friendship. Seen through that lens, Linklater's experiments in time with the Before series and his latest, Boyhood, partially feel like attempts to impress his childhood hero.
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When he takes Benning into the editing room of Boyhood, you empathize with Linklater's nervous posturing as he shows off how he cuts the decade-plus of footage from year to year. Meanwhile, the less-famous Benning confesses that the modern students he teaches take their inspiration from Slacker. Get inspired by both July 18 through 27, when the Anthology Film Archive screens Double Play in conjunction with a jaunt through the filmmakers' past works, everything from Benning's quirky motorcycle road trip doc North on Evers to Linklater's remake of The Bad News Bears, which we now realize is the wistful never-was — home run-hitter rounding the bases for old times' sake.