‘Windmill Movie’ tells story of narcissist filmmaker

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:19pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Many biographical documentaries tell the success stories; “The Windmill Movie” is about someone who didn’t quite make it.

Or, to put it another way, Richard P. Rogers was a failure in his own mind, although he had a healthy career as a film professor and director-for-hire of TV documentaries.

But what he really wanted to do was complete a serious autobiographical documentary about his own life — but he never did.

After his death from cancer in 2001, Rogers’ widow, the well-regarded photographer Susan Meiselas, asked a former student to create a feature out of the 200 hours of footage Rogers left behind.

That student, Alexander Olch, directed and wrote “The Windmill Movie,” a sometimes tortuous if admittedly fascinating look at a tortured soul. Rogers was the product of privilege, having grown up in private schools and a house in the Hamptons that he later inherited.

He never got over his pedigree. When he observes how hard it is to feel sympathy for a WASP with a house in the Hamptons, he’s predicting the main difficulty of watching a feature film about an insufferable person. He had every opportunity he needed, but couldn’t do what he said he wanted to do.

In old and recent footage, we see Rogers himself endlessly worrying over the rightness of the project, second-guessing whether it was appropriate to place himself at the center of the movie (he tried using actors, but abandoned the idea). Drowning in a pool of narcissism this deep, it’s no wonder Rogers couldn’t keep his head above water.

Seeing old footage of his overbearing mother suggests some reasons for his navel-gazing, as does information about family histories of alcoholism and mental illness.

But Olch isn’t interested in doing a straight bio; this is shaped in the spirit of its subject, an experimental work in bits and pieces.

Along with Rogers’ well-photographed snippets of film from the past, Olch includes new footage of actors (including Wallace Shawn, a longtime Rogers friend).

The latter isn’t well integrated into the body of the movie, but nothing else is either. Rogers seems not to have had a coherent idea of how his magnum opus was actually going to play out, except that it was going to be — obsessively — about himself. One can only hope he discouraged his film students from pursuing a similar course.

Screenings of “The Windmill Movie” are preceded by a 10-minute short made by Rogers in the late ’60s, “Quarry,” which makes his wheel-spinning all the sadder. It’s a superb collage of young people swimming at a quarry, made with the discipline that escaped his unfinished magnum opus.

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