The Windmill Movie
The film its subject couldn’t complete
Judging solely by his accomplishments, it would be hard to discern that Richard P. Rogers led a frustrating life. Before he died of cancer in 2001 at 57, he taught and ran the Film Studies Center at Harvard. He made several well-regarded documentaries, including 1991’s “Pictures From a Revolution,’’ an impressionistic work about Nicaragua and the Sandinistas. He helped found the film program at State University of New York, Purchase, one of the best in the country.
Those details, though, are the rough sketch for an obituary. Between the lines, Rogers doubted himself. He was a child of affluence who found not-insignificant success when he wanted extraordinary achievement. He plugged away, while greater things and greatness itself eluded him. His disappointments are the subject of “The Windmill Movie,’’ a remarkable documentary attempt to reconcile Rogers’s sense of personal, professional, and artistic malaise, which culminated in his decades-long attempt to make a film about his life. He left behind more than 200 hours of footage but no finished movie.
Alexander Olch, one of Rogers’s former Harvard students, combines some of that footage, turns his own camera on the women in Rogers’s life, including his widow and collaborator, Susan Meiselas, and orchestrates a bewitching movie that folds into itself. This is about right for a man who seemed to think in origami.
Olch makes the crux of Rogers’s internal conflict immediately apparent. Speaking into a camera in front of a hedge (what else?), Rogers wonders why making a film about oneself is so hard. He says he can’t bring himself to do it because that would mean confronting the truth about himself. That confrontation risks sounding like complaint, and, as Rogers says, there’s something unseemly about a person of privilege trying to sing the blues. (He’s not wrong.) And yet he believed he was a failure - at least in his family’s tax bracket.
He and his sister, Bard, were raised Hamptons WASPs. Daddy worked in the city. Mommy stayed home. Drinking was both a balm and form of communication. And over the years, Rogers came to resent his upbringing even as he appears to live off the comforts it afforded him. His sense of hypocrisy became a kind of pathology, heightened when he became a young adult in the 1960s and 1970s. Rogers mentions his desire to be something other than who he is. His greatest personal failure appears to be failing to shed his own skin. He picks at it, instead.
There’s footage Rogers took of both parents in their later years, but it’s the images of his mother, Muriel, that amaze. In her dotage, her regular attire appears to be slacks, a blazer, and salt-and-pepper wig. She delivers her putdowns right into his camera, asking with relish, “Is that what happens to all creative people: You go through life frustrated as all get-out?’’ If the Beales of “Grey Gardens’’ weren’t Mrs. Rogers’s actual neighbors (both families lived in East Hampton), cosmically speaking, they were.
In trying to figure out how to tell Rogers’s life, Olch (whom Meiselas recruited to help sort out the footage) recruits Rogers’s friend Wallace Shawn, who wanders around East Hampton as Rogers. It’s not a terribly useful conceit, unless the idea is to underscore how misguided Rogers was to make a drama about his life. Still, it’s an honest attempt to personify empathy.
The movie’s searching artistic loneliness rhymes with the romantic doubts in “Sherman’s March,’’ Ross McElwee’s great documentary about his own lack of fulfillment. In another sense, while it would be too much to call Rogers’s life a tragedy, all this footage achieves the weight of deep, personal sadness. What emerges is a character study of artistic and romantic failure that would make an inspired double feature with Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.’’ The title of Olch’s finished assembly obliquely refers to a windmill Rogers’s grandfather had moved onto the family’s property. But it loosely casts Rogers as the Don Quixote of his own life.
“The Windmill Movie’’ is the sort of portrait that Rogers might have made of someone else. It opens today at the Coolidge and is preceded by “Quarry,’’ a handsome 1967 short Rogers shot in Quincy that’s notable for its montages and vivid soundtrack. Unseen discussions about marriage underscore the fact that image and sound here are divorced. Thinking about “Quarry’’ after seeing “The Windmill Movie,’’ the layers and contortions seem characteristic of Rogers - more origami. He could find the art in everyone’s disharmony but his own.