Tag Archives: documentaries

Doubling Up

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct blog of Vérité Film Magazine.

Documentaries about influential artists are a dime a dozen. They constitute their own rigidly codified subgenre, and it’s one beset by numbing sameness, united by certain familiar narrative rhythms. That’s why Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013) feels so refreshingly different. Absent are any talking head testimonials from the artists’ collaborators or admirers. No critics pop up to pontificate about how these men are major figures of 21st century cinema. Nor does Klinger preface his subjects’ conversations with linear rundowns of their biographical details and work to date. Instead, everything comes straight from the horses’ mouths. Aside from occasional film clips or archival interviews, anything the audience learns about Benning and Linklater emerges from their chats, whether at lunch or at the Austin Film Society (which Linklater co-founded), with Klinger’s unintrusive camera tagging along.

That’s the “doubling” conceit which provides both Double Play’s title and structure. It allows these two filmmakers’ decades of experience and honed techniques to bounce off one another as the men and their films engage in dialogue. In fact, it makes Double Play resemble nothing quite so much as one of Linklater’s Before films, with the arid countryside around Austin standing in for Paris or Vienna. Benning and Linklater may not have as contentious a relationship as Céline and Jesse, but they do have similarly voracious intellects and eclectic interests, which makes their banter comparably engaging. They discuss favorite cameras and film vs. digital; they shoot hoops, play catch, and talk baseball. (That latter digression’s supplemented by passages from Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake and Benning’s American Dreams: Lost and Found). Personal minutiae, artistic nitty-gritty, big philosophical picture: it’s all fair game.

The film leans most often toward Linklater, since his filmography is more accessible and easier to excerpt. Around Double Play’s rough “climax,” Klinger even segues into a full-on video essay piecing together dream and pinball-related sequences from Slacker, Dazed and ConfusedWaking Life, and his other films, showcasing several clear thematic preoccupations. However, while Benning’s non-narrative features may lose some of their impact in tiny doses, the clips from movies like One Way Boogie Woogie and 13 Lakes are still tantalizing, especially when juxtaposed with Linklater’s more restrained experiments in space and time. Benning himself adds immeasurably to the film’s conversations as well, whether he’s interrogating Linklater or pulling from his own memories. His recollection of seeing John Cage perform a piece derived from Finnegans Wake when he was in college, for example—the experience he says made him want to be an artist—is deeply moving.

“The one relationship we all have that endures to the end,” says Linklater, “is our own relationship with our past selves, you know, and the stories we create to connect ourselves to who we were.” It’s a meandering profundity of the sort that pervades his films, one that could even serve as a loose thesis statement for Boyhood. (Clips from that film, at the time incomplete, appear near the end of Double Play as Linklater and Benning examine its year-to-year transitions with editor Sandra Adair.) That sentiment is also typical of this documentary which is, sure, a cross-section of two major directors’ oeuvres, but beyond that a sit-down with two middle-aged friends who like to share their perspectives and work through creative problems. It’s not a set of authoritative answers, nor is it a glorified DVD extra like so many movies of its ilk, but rather a long, thoughtful talk about the role of life in art and art in life.

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And Nothing But the Truth

[This is my third entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

Thanks to watching a lot of Hitchcock movies and film noir, I’ve always been terrified of being caught in a real-life “wrong man” scenario. The kind where circumstantial evidence links you to a crime—usually a murder—and protest as you may, you’re still arrested, tried, and somehow convicted. Maybe you’re jailed, maybe you’re executed, but the point is that you can’t fight it. Fate has chosen this bad path for you. Fate, and a flawed justice system.

That same nightmare devours Randall Adams, the protagonist of Errol Morris’s groundbreaking documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988). I say “groundbreaking” in part because of its formal construction, but also because, get this, it brought up new evidence and more or less got Adams set free. It’s the rare movie that actually had a direct, tangible effect on someone’s life. Such is the power of Morris’s interview technique (which renders the director himself invisible) and his gradual, multimedia build-up of evidence.

This documentary doesn’t rely on voice-of-god narration or authoritative title cards. Instead, the evidence speaks for itself. The mild-mannered Adams and his one-time acquaintance David Harris (who, per Morris, actually shot the cop in 1976) are given space to tell their respective stories; then, over time, Morris weaves in testimony by investigators, lawyers, and dubious eyewitnesses, deepening our impressions of “what really happened” and developing several layers of “truth.” Concurrently, he establishes a veneer of objectivity through physical data: maps, photos, diagrams, calendars, newspaper clippings, even a drive-in schedule.

But perhaps the most powerful form of documentation in Morris’s toolbox is the crime scene reenactment. His are different from the ones you’d typically see in a true-crime TV special. They’re elliptical, affectless, more oriented toward objects than people, and set to Philip Glass’s typically chilly, minimalist score. Often they reiterate a single point—e.g., that inscrutable series of gunshots—but they also change over the course of the film, adding new angles and details as our understanding of the crime evolves. Here, the truth is malleable. It can always be improved by new, better information.

What’s more, “the truth” can always be skewed during investigation. Midway through the film, defense attorney Edith James suggests that Adams was prosecuted not on the strength of the evidence, but because “he was a convenient age.” At 28, he could receive the death penalty, whereas the 16-year-old Harris couldn’t. Here and elsewhere, the film goes beyond arguing that Adams is innocent, and asserts that the whole of Texan (or hell, American) justice is corrupt. Its priorities are mixed up. It depends too heavily on the judgments of flawed individuals. As Dennis White, another of Adams’ attorneys, explains:

Some policeman… made a decision about who to prosecute and set the wheel of justice in motion in the wrong direction, and they got going so fast no one could stop them.

The past couple years have seen Rick Perry nearly nominated for president and CeCe McDonald jailed by a racist, transphobic justice system. The lessons of The Thin Blue Line are as crucial as ever.

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Link Dump: #68

Oh my god, it’s Peter Lorre with two kitties on him! That’s just like the cutest thing ever. Pussy Goes Grrr’s been fairly quiet this past week, but lots of goodies soon to come: some list-tastic posts, some reviews, and of course the Queer Film Blogathon on the horizon. But for now, a few links:

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