The 20th Bradford International Film Festival has begun! But don’t panic – you haven’t missed anything yet. In fact, the festival proper doesn’t get started until 27th March 2014.
Anticipation is, however, a major component of any feast, and the unveiling of the dates for our 20th edition means that, in cinephiliac terms, stomachs can really start rumbling. The shape and contents of BIFF-XX – as the team has taken to calling it – are still in flux, needless to say, but there’s already one title that is firmly fixed in the frame: the UK premiere of Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning, Richard Linklater.
In the interests of ‘full disclosure’ I have to confess a certain connection to this particular film – I’m even thanked in the credits. It’s a feature-length documentary about the friendship between two of the USA’s most distinctive and acclaimed directors, both somewhat serious baseball players in their youth (even if neither actually turned pro).
I first met Gabe, a loquacious Sao Paulo-born, Chicago-raised academic/programmer/critic, nearly a decade ago at the film festival in Turin. He was barely out of his teens at the time (he’s now 30) but his knowledge of and passion for cinema gave the impression he’d been movie-besotted since Erich Von Stroheim was in short trousers.
He’s been a friend ever since, a comrade-in-arms around the European festival circuit – his travel-schedules make my own itineraries look positively recluse-like. And when he told me that he was cooking up some kind of low-budget movie about Benning and Linklater it immediately went to the top of my to-see list.
Of course, there’s always a sense of slight peril whenever any friend or even an acquaintance tells you he or she’s making a film. What if it’s terrible?! But when Gabe provided more details of his plan, that it would basically record a conversation between Benning and Linklater at a baseball game in the latter’s native Austin, Texas, such fears subsided a notch.
‘Rick’ Linklater needs little introduction, having been an acclaimed and inspirational fixture on the US independent scene since his hugely influential debut Slacker nearly two decades ago. Before Midnight this year completed the unplanned, widely beloved trilogy that began with Before Sunrise and continued with Before Sunset. His filmography ranges from groundbreaking animations Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly to more multiplex-friendly fare like School of Rock and the baseball-dominated Bad News Bears – and then there’s my personal favourite Dazed and Confused, now acknowledged as the American Graffiti of the 1990s.
While he may have a lower profile with the general movie going public than Linklater, the Wisconsin-born, California-based James Benning should by now be an exceedingly familiar name to BIFF regulars.
No fewer than five of his engrossingly contemplative landscape studies have been selected for the Uncharted States of America strand since it kicked off back in 2006: One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later, RR, casting a glance, small roads and, this April, One Way Boogie Woogie 2012. In addition, the section has often shown pictures made by Benning’s students at CalArts, where’s he taught for 25 years, including Mike Ott, David Nordstrom and Lee Lynch.
Recognised as a seminal figure of the American avant-garde since the late seventies, Benning’s profile has risen dramatically since around 2008, when he switched from 16mm film to digital formats and finally allowed his previously hard-to-catch work to be released (film by film) on immaculately prepared DVDs via the wizards at Vienna’s Austrian Film Museum.
BIFF-XX will include a special edition of the Uncharted States sidebar celebrating Benning, his work and his influence — the plan is that he’ll be able to finally attend in person (he’s very much in demand right now!) — and so we’re over the moon to get the first UK showing of Double Play.
I actually saw a rough cut in Edinburgh during the summer on Gabe’s laptop, and then the somewhat different finished version when it was unveiled to the public at the world’s oldest film festival, Venice, at the start of September. By this point the small-scale concept of pals chatting at a baseball game had blossomed into something rather more wide-ranging and expansive, unfussily shedding much light on both the creative process and the unlikely parallels between what appear at first glance to be such very different careers.
To Gabe’s genuine surprise, it proved one of the most popular new titles on the Lido (the well-heeled island across the lagoon from Venice ‘proper’ which has hosted the festival since the early 30s) and beat some stiff competition to be named Best Documentary in the ‘Venice Classics’ section showcasing restored greats and non-fiction films about cinema.
Having informally agreed that Bradford would be the logical place to premiere a Benning-themed movie, Gabe (still a bit banjaxed by the whole surreal experience) and I shook hands on the deal after the prize ceremony. Back home, I emailed him for a few words about how the project came about.
“Benning is an old friend. I told him my idea, which he didn’t find totally horrendous, and then he told me to approach Linklater, who I didn’t know personally… The initial discussions between the three of us happened at the Berlin Film Festival late one night. Basically we all agreed we would do it some time in April in Austin, Texas. After the festival I was in Paris and I met André S. Labarthe, who co-founded the great TV series on filmmakers Cinema of Our Times (in French Cinéma, de notre temps)… André liked the idea and said he could get us a little bit of money from French TV. So that’s how it started. After that it was just piecing together the production bit by bit since the TV money really wasn’t enough. I had to exhaust every resource that I had in front of me and call in every favour to finish the damn thing!”