Gabe Klinger is the director of Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater and also the curator of the James Benning retrospective at Sydney Film Festival. We sat down with him to talk Double Play, time in film and Boyhood.
At the start of Double Play theres’s a line James Benning says in voice-over that I found quite striking and that is that “all life is memory”. Especially in the context of American Dreams (lost and found) there’s this idea of mixing cultural and personal memory, which I think Linklater has also invested in through his films. Do you think this notion of memory is one reason why Benning’s films have had a big impact on Linklater?
Yeah. I think it’s one of the reasons. I think, starting out, Linklater was very interested in Benning’s production method – one camera, one person crew – this sort of very minimalistic, essay-type filmmaking interested Linklater a lot starting out. He was also interested in the films of Chantal Akerman, which also have this sort of straight-forward observation, I say straight-forward but sometimes they’re anything but. I think Linklater was just omnivorous, he was interested in cinema in general and Benning was just one aspect of that, one of the things in his cinematic diet and I think it influenced maybe his risk-taking, to think abstractly. I don’t know that he is directly influenced by Benning. It’s a good question. I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it in that way a lot.
I think the reason that I ask is because I saw Boyhood and there’s a element to Boyhood that sounded a James Benning alarm in my head.
Which one? That’s interesting because I had a James Benning alarm go off in my head too. For me, it was the first shot of the movie, of the clouds and then the second shot, which is Mason Jr. looking up at the clouds, contemplating the clouds, seemed to me a sort-of wink to James Benning’s cinema.
It might have been a more broad comparison I was trying to make about the usage of music in Boyhood as cultural touchstones in the same fashion as Benning in American Dreams.
Oh yeah. That’s a good point. It’s funny, Benning does a similar thing in his remake of Easy Rider.
I’ve seen the first 15 minutes or so of that, it seems so amazing.
You know what he did, though, instead of using the original songs that were used in Easy Rider he found covers of the songs from that film by female singers, including a rendition of Born to be Wild by Suzie the Space Lady, who is a San Francisco street artist. You can find it easily on YouTube but it’s amazing. I think that this sort of historical subversion, or revisionism or activism, you could even say —
Yeah, American Dreams definitely felt like something great. About 20 minutes in it all started to click – the baseball cards, the soundtrack, the diary – your mind can’t latch onto everything at once and you try to connect it all and you can’t. It’s this great unusual feeling.
For me, Easy Rider is a revision and American Dreams is an elucidation. It’s the culture put in front of you, almost completely in a way. The great thing about it is that it is interactive, you can latch onto whichever element you like – the cards, the music, the diary, the soundtrack in general, the political speeches – so every time you see it it offers something new. That’s the aspect of time that I think interests Benning – everything’s happening in the now and we’re struggling to understand it while it’s happening in the now, and what art can do is help us to understand things retrospectively. So, like Boyhood, that conceit is perfectly applicable to Boyhood, in that you understand growth and development and maturation in retrospect.
American Dreams has so much depth to it too, like Boyhood, you can come out of the film and have completely different elements that you love relative to someone else. I got hooked on this idea in Boyhood about recollection of memory and omission of remembrance. I think what Benning was able to do in a much shorter timespan is pack in so much information, whereas Linklater is doing the same but elongated. You can pinpoint tiny things in each film.
Linklater is opening it up to a wider audience, I guess.
It does seem like you can read Boyhood, not shallow, but as a simple journey arc. I was reading it as a commentary on his filmmaking evolution – a lot borrowed from the Before films and Slacker. Slacker is one of my favourite films ever, it’s one of the few that I sat down and saw and felt that, you know, this is different.
It’s funny because, not counting his first Super-8 feature, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, the first three Linklater films are all set within 24-hour timespans.
I guess in that way there’s an overlap with Benning. Even One Way Boogie Woogie, you are focusing on real time.
Interestingly, Boyhood is sort of the opposite of that, it’s a really strange sensation. I think Linklater has this incapacity to think about things in a more straight-forward way and I think that’s part of his strangeness and Benning has that too. You know, the question that sticks out is why Benning is so uncompromising, he just goes all the way with these concepts and it’s no holds barred. Nobody in the audience is invited into the experience, really, at least in a way that we’re used to.
There’s something about Linklater that’s so boldly emotional. There’s a really unexpectedly emotional scene in Double Play where Linklater is talking about D. Montgomery, who was in Slacker and co-founded the Austin Film Society and passed away nearly twenty years ago and he says he saw her in a dream and spoke to her. It’s so surreal to see in this Q&A that he just brings up something both personal and powerful.
There’s actually a fair amount about dreams in the film —
There’s the montage of Linklater’s films.
There’s the montage sequence that I did but also in the baseball sequence, when they’re playing catch and Linklater says that he had a dream that he had made the major leagues or something like that. So you can tell that this guy is a dreamer, he’s always thinking about his dreams. We could have revealed more about Linklater if we had put him in the psychiatry chair – he just reveals himself through these dreams.
There’s Waking Life, which is basically Linklater’s ode to lucid dreaming but even in the Q&A, when he talks about lucid dreaming and talking to D, you get a sense that he loves lucid dreaming because he can control his own creativity even while he’s asleep. It’s this really beautifully idea where he’s injecting his view of the outside world to his subconscious in some way.
I don’t know, his process is still kind of a mystery to me.
Even with Boyhood, when it is quite obvious in the first hour that they are trying something and it’s not entirely succeeding and then suddenly it clicks – it’s kind of hard to explain – it’s not the structural conceit that makes it so impressive, it’s that these good things, these elements, build upon each other to a sustained catharsis. It’s not even a universal thing. Mason Jr isn’t every American boy, or everyone. It’s just one story. Because it is filled with so many details it feels like a life, which I don’t think has been done on that level before.
Well, to a certain extent. When I wrote up my review of Boyhood, I was trying to call up other exmaples, like David Perlov’s diaries of his family, the Antoine Doinel cycle, the Up saga, Eduardo Coutinho did a film called Twenty Years Later where he revisits certain characters after twenty years. Some of them were by design but others just worked out that way. There are longitudinal experiments in cinema that are precedents for Boyhood, I don’t think it’s a revolution in that sense but it is very impressive. It’s such a feat, you know, the funny thing about Linklater is I think you have to put yourself in a kind of trance to do what he does or be so successful creatively with these ideas. David Lynch talks a lot about the creative process and meditation and I think everyone has their thing, their system that works for them, the thing that just zaps them, you’re just channelling something from the air, you know. I’m dealing with that right now, I’m making my first fiction feature and it’s so different to have to invent things as opposed to just observing and documenting things. There’s a real schism between documentary filmmaking and narrative filmmaking and I think because of that it takes different personalities. There are very few people who can do both and do both well, and I’m finally starting to understand that, why that schism exists. Man, but it’s so challenging, first of all to create something from scratch and then to visualise that in your head before you have to face the material constraints of it. I mean, what Linklater does and successfully over the years is kind of amazing. With Benning, I think it’s less about that and more about getting to the material space, the physical space and seeing what the constrictions are and dealing with it in the moment. Both have their virtues, ultimately, that’s another thing that sets them apart – Benning is not so much a lucid dreamer, he’s more of like a meditator, I think he’s really in the moment.
There’s a scene in your film, I think it’s taken from an older documentary about Benning, where we see him sitting at the edge of the sea with a microphone just recording the sound of the waves. We see him take out the equipment from the boot of his car, set it up and then just sit there and listen. It’s a weirdly beautiful sequence – a man recording one thing and focusing on one element in real time. It is meditative, in a way, just to watch him with the microphone. About your filmmaking, I know that you have an academic background —
I was, I just quit my job, though.
Really? Is it just because you’re now making films?
Yeah. It’s because everything’s such a big risk and it’s so time-consuming to make films. When I was making Double Play, when I got into it, I realised it was just going to take over my life. Even with a sort of modest concept of it. For me, at the very beginning I just didn’t want it to live on TV, as one iteration. As we were making it and cutting it I thought that this would be cool if it could play in cinemas.
Do you think that because of that aim of taking it to cinemas and a wider audience, you were educating people about Benning? people know Linklater but there’s a lot in the documentary of Benning films that I haven’t seen and it made me want to go out and find them.
Yeah, it was shining a light on Benning through Linklater. That was one objective, one aim. In another sense, to dismantle this idea of art and commerce, of experimental cinema and narrative cinema, just to try and remove some of those boundaries. Just to have a bigger discussion about what cinema is and the aspect of time is really important to that because anything you do in cinema, time is always gonna be an inherent quality —
And both of those filmmakers have films that revolve around structural concepts of time passing.
I love watching bad movies sometimes to try and figure out what their concept of time is – is it this construction of time that comes from well-oiled conventions or is it another notion of time that’s a bit more subjective or personal and coming from the filmmaker? Ultimately, though, the films that stand out are those which deal with time subjectively and personally in some way and the movies that are forgettable and that just take it all of the conventions. I mean what it all comes down to is that we all have these different concepts of time and the movies that we make are always going to represent that in some way. If you have a Hollywood movie, let’s say, that has a lot of hands in the pie, when editors and studio executives are brought in, you can tell because suddenly it becomes this misshapen thing, there are no truths, it doesn’t connect to the original idea that sprouted in somebody’s head. That’s a thing I really admire about Linklater, you have to streamline the process working with producers and cinematographers and so many people so it’s just one vision.
Linklater doesn’t have the luxury of being able to go one man, one camera, one space.
Exactly! He can’t achieve what he wants to with that but what he does is remarkable.
What do you think, then, of Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake, which pops up in Double Play. I saw the original a few months ago and found it pretty funny but now it seems odd that he would remake it.
It’s funny because all of Linklater’s films grow in my estimation. School of Rock, when that came out, I actively rejected it. I thought it was a betrayal of Linklater’s indie roots and now I look at it and I see it as a radical criticism of the American education system. Not only that but there are a lot of interesting things about it, the way he worked with the kids – they were all non-professional actors…
Some of those kids went on to become professional actors, too. I remember seeing School of Rock which I was younger and liking it a lot. It does have a deceptively clever script from Mike White, who went on and did the deceptively clever Enlightened. If you look back back on School of Rock after seeing Bernie you realise that Jack Black should work with Richard Linklater a few more times because there’s something there.
Bad News Bears, I think, is probably Linklater’s most conventional film. I’ve never asked him about it, whether he’s happy about it but it manages to be very political, like in that moment I highlighted in the film where Billy Bob Thornton is surprised by the young black kid doesn’t have a jersey that reflects an interest in other black baseball players and he challenges something there. It’s an in-between moment, it’s an aside, it’s not supposed to mean anything but because of all of the other noise you can get away with those kind of moments, It seemed to me almost like a real Hollywood auteur movie, in the sense that he was smuggling in things like that, the same way that a lot of the more politically active Hollywood filmmakers would smuggle in little ideas like that, in a sort of termite practice of making films. Then it’s very personal too, because of baseball, the way he films baseball, the ball moving…
… the scene in Dazed & Confused is so good, the baseball sequence.
With the slow-mo, yeah.
What are your personal or academic interests that led you to be interested in Benning and Linklater?
Well, I can identify more with Linklater, in that I’m an omnivorous cinephile, I consume all kinds of films and art, any visual and sonic medium I’m all over, I just think it’s all enriches any artwork that you’re looking at to have references to other things and to try to be knowledgeable about those things. I guess when I was starting to watch movies I had seen Stan Brakhage and undervalued what he was doing, I didn’t get it. I’d seen a couple of Benning things and I don;t think I was ready at that moment for Benning. I remember seeing a Preminger film, Fallen Angel I think, where there’s a seen of Dana Andrews kissing a woman under a bridge or something like that, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment. But I remember seeing that as a kid and then revisiting that after I had kissed a girl and after I knew what that meant and the anxiety of that moment and power of the other person and it was like one of those eureka moments, like, wow, as you accumulate experiences in your life art deepens and I think it’s the same thing with a lot of experimental filmmakers. As my horizons expand my appreciation of these art expands as well. So Andy Warhol and Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow. These are great movies and I don’t separate them from Orson Welles and Howard Hawks, for me they’re all doing similar things. What was the original question?
Why were you personally interested in Benning and Linklater…
Oh yeah, I don’t know. Personally, because I’ve known Benning for ten years and managed to cultivate a friendship with him over those ten years. Some of it more one-sided, it would be me pursuing him and approaching him and being rebuffed by him and then I wore down his resistances and then I endeared to him and now we’re good friends.
One final question: Do you think that now because you’re a filmmaker, things like when you were shooting Benning and Linklater on that big rock and Linklater talked about how he and his friends would spin a camera around, do you think that notion of following two people who are so creative with using the camera, that has allowed you to take a different approach in actually making a film?
Yeah, I think both of those guys, they’re kind of just strange guys and they have a vision of America and cinema and they’re constantly expressing that and I think there’s a need to do that and what I’m learning to, being on the other side, is that it’s not enough just to commit yourself to a project, you need to say something. Then you follow through with it. It’s a compulsion. Nobody gets up and just calculates that they’re going to do something for these external reasons, I think maybe they do, but I think certain people think “I’m going to do this for money” or “I’m going to do this for prestige” or “I’m going to do this because I have an obligation,” and then there are those people who matter to me, the people that just, they need to say something, they need to express themselves in that moment and say that thing about it and then they follow through all the way with that idea and for me Benning and Linklater are people who embody that. There are artists who have always embodied that, they find certain stories and they attach themselves to those stories and they follow through just all the way. I mean, it’s so hard, no one else is going to tell that story for you. That’s the interesting thing, too, about Hollywood cinema, to me, is that somebody could write a script and they could hand it to Richard Linklater or hand it to somebody else and it’s never gonna be the same film, there’s no way. As you said with School of Rock and Mike White’s script, it would probably be a quite trite movie if put in the hands of the wrong person. It’s very interesting and I think, I can tell you another thing about Linklater – while we were making Double Play he was getting all of these calls. There was this discussion that he was attached to this project with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte about the Appalachian Trail based on a book, I forget. But then it was announced a short time later that maybe Robert Redford would be directing it and that maybe Richard Linklater wasn’t attached to the project. But I know that Rick had gone on the Appalachain Trail and had done all this research about it and was trying to find his own angle to this thing. There are maybe these journeymen directors who would attach themselves to that for the prestige and tell the camera to go there and the actor to do this and do things very robotically. I think with Rick, he needs to figure out what this thing means in his life and this moment and that’s really what separates him from the hacks out there. And my God there are so many hacks. One of the objectives of this movie was just to remind people that there are actual people making movies still, that there are actual voices and that there is this whole process behind it – it’s not like William Holden says in Sunset Boulevard, that “movies just write themselves,” it’s much more involved than that.
Thank you very much for your time.
Double Play screens Thursday June 12 and Friday June 13 at Sydney Film Festival. The James Benning retrospective begins on Saturday the 14th.