“Why is it so hard to make a film about yourself?” asks Richard Rogers in Alexander Olchs’ The Windmill Movie. He shortly thereafter unwittingly answers his own question via another question: “Is there anything to say?” Opening today at Film Forum in New York, Windmill is a kind of personal documentary by proxy. After his teacher/mentor/collaborator Rogers died of cancer, Olchs was invited by Rogers’ widow, world-renowned photographer Susan Meiselas, to comb through the Harvard professor/documentarian’s vast archives of film and video, shot towards a hypothetical autobiographical movie that Rogers was never able to put together.
For Rogers, self-examination lead to a kind of tunnel-vision, embodied by an oft-seen image in Windmill of Rogers looking into the mirror from behind the camera. One of Windmill’s key ideas seems to be that the camera actually got in the way of Rogers’ ability to clearly see his own reflection. that, because of constant self-doubt as to whether he, as a white man born into money, had anything worthwhile to say, the apparatus through which he made his living filming other people couldn’t double as a tool through which to see himself. The service that Rogers provided to his subjects — of finding the truth in the raw material they offered up — Olchs attempts to perform by any means necessary for his lost friend.
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Olchs is able to sync up some of Rogers’ material, much of it gorgeous color film footage inspired by his youth in the Hamptons, to audio recordings that Rogers also left behind. As we look at faded color 16mm images of green fields and and girls on bikes and girls on beaches and legs and smiles and girls and girls, Rogers’ voice explains that his formative sexual experiences happened on the beach, as a child amongst a gaggle of sunbathing wives left alone while their husbands worked in the city. “The summer is incredibly important. Incredibly important things happen in the summer,” he’s decided, and this will be the running thesis of his film. You believe him when he says that those summer hours aspent s the only male presence (and a purely voyeuristic one) in a female environment, the rest of his gender off securing the caste, were key to his “becoming a person.” As a man, he never lacked for sexual partners, but had much more trouble with his professional identity. Not only could he not finish the personal film, but his less-than-lucrative choice of filmmaking niche put him in general opposition to his monied family and the notion of masculinity, deeply tied to an ability to sustain a family’s lifestyle via professional contribution, that prevailed in his Hamptons spiritual home. More than once, Rogers laments not being able to add to the family fortune by being a banker, or at least “Steven Spielberg.” This is the strongest stuff in The Windmill Movie, the sections where Rogers’ non-existent self-portrait really seems to have been stitched into some kind of benevolent Frankenstein-like life.
Olchs’ bolder creative moves are less successful, but still often compelling. In an attempt to be fair to Rogers’ own interest in the idea of recreation of reality as the path to truth, Olchs chose to funnel the left-behind material into a documentary-fiction hybrid, with Wallace Shawn (ie: “Dick’s old friend Wally”, with whom Rogers went to prep school) performing Rogers in copies of scenes shot before his death. The material with Shawn is, surprisingly, the film’s weakest link; apparently a vestigial tail of an abandoned project in which Shawn would play Rogers and Cynthia Nixon would take the role of Susan Meiselas, there’s not enough of it left in the finished piece for what’s there to add up to anything, so when it is woven in, it’s a distraction. Olchs also scripted a narration from Rogers’ perspective, based on conversations with the older filmmaker’s friends and family and the diaries he left behind, which Olchs performs himself. This is a fascinatingly ballsy move (one wonders, did Olchs come up with phrases like “my thwarted sperm,” or was that an actual Rogersism?), one which works as an analogue to the sequences edited to Rogers’ left-behind recordings, but never matches the synchronous power of the late filmmaker’s images matched to his voice.
Ultimately, one gets swept up in the first soapy, then tragic melodrama of the life matter that overwhelmed Rogers’ desire/compulsion/ability to make art — his youthful bohemian sexuality aged into an inability to choose between potential life partners, the endless Hamptons summer of sun-and-booze-soaking soured into melanoma, then brain cancer — while still longing for a discreet “Where I’m From” statement of equal precision and beauty to Rogers’ late-60s short Quarry (which will screen before Olch’s feature at Film Forum). That key question posed early on — “Is there anything to say?” — is answered by Rogers’ own material with a frustrated “yes”; Olchs’ material plays up the tragedy that Rogers’ confidence in his own voice failed to metastasize quicker than cancer.