The Windmill Movie (Zeitgeist Video/The KimStim Collection, NR)

A better question, it seems to me, is not if one has a right to complain about one’s life, but whether or not one can make an interesting film about it.




Richard P. Rogers was the director of the Film Study Center at Harvard and a filmmaker whose work includes PBS documentaries, episodes of the television series Life Goes On, and experimental films. Throughout much of his adult life he also worked on an autobiographical film that remained unfinished at his untimely death in 2001 (at age 57, of melanoma). After his death his widow, the filmmaker Susan Meiselas, hired Alexander Olch (one of Rogers’ students at Harvard) to make a film out of the footage (200 hours worth, give or take) Rogers had shot. The result is The Windmill Movie.

As if Rogers’ autobiographical project was not meta enough (he shot a great deal of documentary footage as well as scenes with actors playing him and characters from his life), Olch takes it one step further with a film about the making of the film that Rogers never completed. Or Olch’s version of that film, anyway, because as we know, whoever controls the edit room controls the final film.

If you’re interested in the process of filmmaking—how to tell a story using the language of cinema—then you might well find The Windmill Movie fascinating. Rogers shot some visually interesting footage (and like many young men he had a thing for pretty girls) and he didn’t shy away from poking at family wounds either. Rogers seems to have had an ambivalent relationship at best with his inherited wealth, one of the first things addressed in The Windmill Movie. First Rogers himself, then Wallace Shawn (another of Rogers’ students at Harvard) playing Rogers, addresses the camera with a question that he never answers: is it unseemly for someone born to WASP-ish privilege in the Hamptons (Wainscott, to be precise) to complain that life isn’t exactly as they would wish it to be?

A better question, it seems to me, is not whether one has a right to complain about one’s life, but whether or not one can make an interesting film about it. There’s not much evidence here that Rogers would ever have succeeded, since he seems unwilling to dig very deep or be really honest with himself or his intended audience. The interesting parts of The Windmill Movie are those that give the great unwashed among us (you know, the kind of people who had to win scholarships to get to college and didn’t inherit a home on Long Island) a glimpse at how the other half lives. On the minus side, the footage selected by Olch shows Rogers as a self-serving narrator whose presentation of his life story is too flattering and superficial to stay interesting for long.

You might think that a filmmaker making a film about himself would spend some time talking about how he became interested in film, how he developed a personal style, etc. But there’s precious little of that. Instead there are lots of complaints about family problems, recitals of girlfriends and his betrayals of them, scenes from his cancer treatment, footage of his wedding to Meiselas, and so on. These are important experiences to the person having them but not terribly interesting to anyone else—unless, of course, they are presented in a way that makes them interesting. It’s odd for a reasonably successful filmmaker (but no Spielberg, a comparison Rogers brings up several times) to fail to realize that distinction, but then we all have our blind spots, don’t we?

The DVD of The Windmill Movie includes two short films by Richard P. Rogers: Elephants: Fragments of an Argument (25 min.) and 226-1690 (a.k.a. The Answering Machine Movie) (27:24), and the liner notes include an essay by Scott Foundas. | Sarah Boslaugh


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