Documentary filmmaker and Harvard professor Richard P. Rogers died of cancer in 2001, at age 57. Following his death, his wife, photographer Susan Meiselas, asked one of his students, Alexander Olch, to sort through footage Rogers had been shooting for years, with the intention of making an autobiographical documentary about his youth (among the privileged and alcoholic residents of the Hamptons), career and, eventually, his illness. Using Rogers' footage, Olch made this fascinating documentary.
With the entire 200 hours of Richard Rogers' personal film footage available to him, Alexander Olch had the challenging task of fitting together a documentary that would serve as the cinematic autobiography that Rogers, his former film professor and mentor, had envisioned, but never completed. Rogers had backed away from finishing the film because, as we learn in his on camera commentaries, he had doubts about both its structure and its importance. In an early shot, Rogers, standing behind a camera and filming himself as he stares at himself in a mirror, comments that he's simply doing what's done in every autobiographical documentary, and that he finds it ordinary and boring.
With this shot, which Olch replicates later in the film and which becomes a sort of Rogers refrain, we are immediately introduced to Rogers' style of dialoging with himself, and to his introspection, self-consciousness and self-criticism. Using family archival footage of Rogers' forebears and of Rogers himself as a toddler and teen, mixed in with the clips that Rogers shot of himself and his surroundings during his adulthood up until the final days of his life, Olch creates a illness, is a strong personality and Olch, as writer and editor, uses the full range of footage, plus several reenactments in which actor/writer Wallace Shawn, a lifelong friend of Rogers', plays Rogers (looking into that mirror, for example), to create what is essentially a third person autobiography with epic and poetic qualities that Rogers, himself, might not have found in his own life and material.
Privilege Has Its Madness
Rogers acknowledges his privileged upbringing, and comments that it would seem pointless and self-indulgent to complain about his childhood, which was spent in private schools and, during the summers, at the beach in Wainscott, one of the wealthy Long Island residential communities collectively known as The Hamptons. Yet he says that his parents, both of whom we meet in archival footage, had a dysfunctional relationship and he claims that the lawn parties they and their socialite friends attended were usually drunken affairs disrupted by fights and other disturbances.
In fact, some of the footage is reminiscent of that seen in Grey Gardens, the celebrated Albert and David Maysles verite documentary about "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale, the delusional mother and daughter duo who were cousins of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and who lived in decaying splendor among the rich, famous and socially elite residents of posh East Hampton. The Rogers clan weren't as bizarrely disconnected from reality as the Beales, but there are still elements of their behavior that seem strangely out of touch -- like when Rogers' mother sits in a lawn chair in the middle of summer wrapped up in her mink coat. Anyway, it's a lifestyle that's foreign to many moviegoers, and they will probably find it fascinating and, perhaps, a bit discomforting.
Rogers, whose completed films were often experimental in format and style, exhibits extraordinary candor before the camera. He filmed himself in the full flush of self doubt, and nude getting into the bathtub, and agonizingly ill, and having doubts about his long term relationship with Susan Meiselas, the acclaimed photographer whom he married shortly before his death, and who gave Olch the assignment to complete this long-contemplated film. In finishing The Windmill Movie
Olch has done a great job of embracing Rogers' experimental style and adopting his deliberate and quizzical tone. He's created a film that is as much a respectful and moving tribute to his teacher, friend and mentor, as it is the projected realization of Rogers' intended autobiography.
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- Title: The Windmill Movie
- Director: Alexander Olch
- Premiere Date: September 2008 (New York Film Festival)
- DVD Release Date: March 2011
- Running Time: 82 mins.
- Parents Advisory: Advisory for content
- Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wainscott, Long Island and New York City
- Language: English
- Company: SCM Productions/HBO Documentaries
- DVD Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
- Official Website