Saturday, November 15, 2014

Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater

James Benning, Stemple Pass, 2012

James Benning, 13 Lakes, 2004

James Benning, Small Roads, 2011

Director Gabe Klinger at the Music Box Theatre

Director Gabe Klinger accepting the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, 2013

aka:  Cinéma, de Notre Temps:  James Benning and Richard Linklater
USA  France  Portugal  (70 mi)  2013  d:  Gabe Klinger       Official site

Winner of the Golden Lion Classici Award as Best Documentary at Venice, while the director is a young friend to many here in the Chicago area, as Klinger has been part of the local cinema scene since he was seen at age 16 handing out homemade pamphlets he printed up about The Puppetmaster (Xi meng ren sheng) (1993) at a Film Center retrospective on the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien.  Endearing himself to many, he was like the little brother that many of us never had, eager and completely immersed in watching cinema at an early age, where watching Bergman at 12 was a horrifying experience, yet he survived with his wits intact and an open optimism about the future.  With a Brazilian-American cultural heritage and a history of international travel, coming to America at age 5, moving to Europe and spending his early teenage years in Barcelona, Spain where he saw his first Bresson retrospective at the age of 15 before moving back to the States, he brings a distinct European sensibility to the idea that art critics should support the work of artists, becoming parallel voices of the creative process, where the dual tracks are likely to only further expand potential audiences, such as making inlays into different generational age groups.  By 19, he was a programmer at Block Cinema (Block Cinema: Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art ...), where he programmed, among other things, a Georges Méliès series, a newly restruck 35 mm print of Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), Orson Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965), Roberto Rossellini rarities, and the first Chicago screening of Jia Zhang-ke’s PLATFORM (2000).  Perhaps more significantly, no one had ever screened Godard’s four-hour plus multi-part video series HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA (1998) in an American public screening before, where Klinger called Godard’s sister who had an existing copy in New York to obtain permission for a weekend screening.  He subsequently became a college cinema studies professor and a programmer for Rotterdam, Sydney, and the Chicago Underground Film festivals, while also presenting material for the Museum of Modern Art.  Eventually programming and writing about film became complementary tasks, becoming a film critic for various publications such as Senses of Cinema, Cinema Scope, BFI Sight and Sound, and Mubi Notebook before co-editing a book on filmmaker Joe Dante, Joe Dante - Columbia University Press.  Of interest, Klinger sent in his choices of the ten greatest films in the 2012 BFI Sight & Sound poll, Gabe Klinger | BFI.

Dennis Lim from The New York Times, August 20, 2010, Film - Miguel Gomes and Others Mix Drama and Reality ...

Jean-Luc Godard once observed that every fictional film is a documentary of its actors. Jacques Rivette finessed the aphorism, proposing that every film is a documentary of its own making, not only a record for posterity of the people in it but also a window into the culture that produced it. In a very literal sense, all films have documentary aspects: once the camera is turned on, whatever is captured, no matter how staged, contains a trace of reality, an element of chance. The inverse is true as well: no documentary, whatever its claims to objective reportage, is ever devoid of manipulation, since a controlling hand is evident in even the most routine matters of camera placement and shot selection.

While these are truisms, obvious enough to anyone who has given these issues more than passing consideration, they have long been easy to forget in a film culture that conditions us to think of fiction and documentary as distinct forms. One of the most striking developments in recent world cinema is the emergence of films that resist precisely those categories, that could be said to blur or thwart or simply ignore the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, staking out instead a productive liminal zone in between.

Klinger’s film was originally inspired by the Cinéma, de Notre Temps series, a collection of documentaries, each devoted to specific filmmakers that began airing on French television in 1964 under the guidance of André S. Labarthe, who is one of the producers of the film.  It was only with his blessing that this film could be made, where according to Klinger, “As a reference for films about filmmakers, you can’t get any better than that series.  So if you’re making a film about filmmaking, wouldn’t you want to be a part of that legacy?”  The genesis of this film began back in 1985 when Richard Linklater, prior to releasing his first feature, formed The Austin Film Society, a film club that screened arthouse and experimental films to an enthusiastic community of like-minded cinephiles, where their first invited guest happened to be experimental filmmaker James Benning, a Midwestern artist that moved to New York in 1980, who with the aid of grants released over a dozen short films, two documentaries, and a half dozen early features by that time, including the highly regarded avant-garde film 11 X 14 (1977), an experimental mosaic of single-shot sequences.  In the late 80’s Benning moved to California where he’s been teaching film/video at the California Institute of the Arts ever since, while continuing to make contemporary, non-narrative cinema that may confound easy categorization.  Suffice it to say, Benning met Linklater at the time and the two developed a personal relationship over the years, while Linklater has gone on to carve out his own reputation as one of the finest independent filmmakers working today.  Two artists seemingly on separate wavelengths, Klinger decides to recreate that initial experience by inviting Benning back to Linklater’s ranch in Bastrop, Texas where he could film them just being themselves.  Combining conversations and archival material, the film has a natural, easy-going fluidity about it where their philosophical explanations mix with clips from their films that offer a parallel expression of their respective artistic visions.  Bookended by Benning’s arrival and departure, the centerpiece of the film is a long, protracted WAKING LIFE (2001) style conversation between the two artists regarding the nature of cinema, what ultimately inspires them, and how these views might change over time. 

While there is nothing radical or new in this cinematic approach, which balances a reality that we see in the present with an alternate reality that exists in the selected clips from their films, Klinger never does a side-by-side comparison of their films or evaluates their unique differences, but simply allows them to speak for themselves, assuming the artists and their work are far more interesting than any reflective commentary by a budding filmmaker who obviously admires them both.  Shot over 4 or 5 days, one common theme is both are trying to control their environment, where Linklater is more connected to the age-old Hollywood style of filmmaking and has obviously produced more crowd-pleasing comedies by using assistants, a film crew, blocking off streets when he shoots, as he goes through a process of following a pre-scripted structure that is eventually edited into his final cut, while Benning has developed a more self-sufficient style by working alone, shooting and developing his film simultaneously, where he’s more concerned about weather patterns, constantly revisiting locations until he understands them well enough that he feels comfortable to begin shooting, where the only actual cost is the price of a sandwich that he brings along for each shoot.  Both filmmakers make films about the somewhat quasi standard and experimental use of time, but certainly one of the phenomenas of the film is the revelatory nature of the clips from Benning’s films, where he’s become something of a landscape artist uniquely expert at capturing a particular moment in time that often changes before our eyes, expressed in the stillness of a single shot, where he chooses to live a rather hermit-like lifestyle, with his Walden cabin sitting on one end of the woods bookended by an exact replica of a Ted Kaczynski cabin built into his isolated wooded retreat.  Both artists are college baseball players-turned-filmmakers, athletes that went to college on sports scholarships that went on to become filmmakers, something of an American phenomena.  According to Benning, “Once I discovered baseball that’s all I did.  I think I’m old enough now to recognize that this obsession with baseball just turned into an obsession with art.  I see my life as very continuous now when I look back at it.” 

Of significant interest is Linklater’s discussion about Boyhood (2014) as he was still shooting the film, where Klinger is invited behind the scenes into the editing room, as some of the edits between age differences had yet to be finalized, where in the beginning of the decade-long project, Linklater still thought of himself as a young kid, but once he saw the aging of the young kids onscreen, including his own daughter (who asked to be killed off as her teenage interest waned), it was a reminder of how much he himself had aged, completely altering his perspective.  Similarly, Klinger edited his own film, where once he realized what he had after the shooting was complete, he began reconfiguring in his mind what to do with it.  “There’s this one lunch scene where they’re just sitting down at Rick’s ranch in Bastrop.  We had two cameras on them and [the conversation] went on for about an hour and ten minutes.  It was completely absorbing and engaging and I remember at a certain point thinking, wow, this one shot could be my entire movie,” closing with a baseball sequence of them playing catch, throwing the ball back and forth, a metaphor for the exchange of ideas.  Klinger has known Benning for about ten years, walking up to him after one of his screenings and introducing himself, claiming the way he speaks about his films adds so much to the experience.  Meeting Linklater for the first time, his response to this first-time filmmaker was offering a wry comment, “I could see you’re a serious film guy.”  Always a hard corps cinema buff, the unbridled enthusiasm of Linklater actually defers to the wisdom of his elder statesman in Benning, where there are five decades of films from these two guys.  Always keeping a respectful distance, Klinger uses the fly-on-the-wall technique, “If you don’t have the purity in formal terms, then you try to achieve the purity in terms of structure and the ideas that you’re trying to convey in the film.  And so it was really important for me to be honest about our experience shooting and at the same time in the representation of the ideas that they were trying to express.”  Klinger indicates the film is driven in large part by Benning’s belief that Linklater had yet to make his defining work, insisting “I don’t think Rick has made his masterpiece yet.  I think he still has his masterpiece inside of him and I want to challenge him to make that masterpiece.”  That masterpiece could very well be Boyhood (my own pick for best film of the year), where the director also submitted his own observations about Linklater’s film in a Cinema Scope article, What is Boyhood? by Gabe Klinger.

Some of the quotes from this review were taken from an hour-long online radio interview in New York between Gabe Klinger and Peter Labuza on October 10, 2014 that can be heard here:  The Cinephiliacs: Episode #44 - Gabe Klinger (The Bowery).   

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