Judge Gordon Sullivan has some autobiographical film footage to sort out.
"What if someone took the images of your life and made a film?"
Richard P. Rogers was an experimental and documentary filmmaker who came from a wealthy family in the Hamptons and rose to some acclaim and a professorship at the prestigious Harvard department of Visual and Environmental Studies. Despite his relative success as a filmmaker and teacher, Rogers' death at the age of 57 precluded him from finishing his mammoth autobiographical film. The plan was for this film to encompass everything from his childhood as the scion of a wealthy family, to his relationship with his overbearing mother, up through his various (and variously entangled) relationships. Though Rogers never finished the film, indeed did not know how to finish the film, two hundred hours of footage was left extant, and one of his students, Alexander Olch took on the task of compiling the material into a documentary feature, The Windmill Movie.
We have little, if any, idea of how Richard P. Rogers would have finished his opus. His footage and diaries reveal that he was struggling with both the film and his relationships enough that it's doubtful that he could have signed off on a completed film. In some ways, then, it's lucky that Olch stepped in to accomplish what Rogers couldn't. From the two hundred hours, Olch pulls together a representative chronology, reading some of Rogers' own intended narration over early parts of the film, and switching to excerpts from Rogers' diaries (as voluminous as his footage, apparently) for later footage. The Windmill Movie is also, to a certain extent, a film about making a film. The first part introduces Rogers and talks about his uncompleted film; from there we see that Rogers had friends in the movie industry who are willing to help finish the film. Wallace Shawn (known to most fans either for his role in The Princess Bride as the scheming Vizzini, or from My Dinner with Andre) steps up and contributes some dramatic interpretations from Rogers' diaries most prominently.
The Windmill Movie has undeniable artistic pedigree: Harvard professor, uncompleted magnum opus, a privileged upbringing abandoned to do create experimental and documentary films. The question, then, is how does the film work as a documentary or biography? Surprisingly, considering it was culled from so much footage and not even the filmmaker was sure how to make it work, the film feels whole and presents a multifaceted portrait of a main both brash and vulnerable. Initially it might seem hard for most audiences to sympathize with a man with an upbringing and profession like Rogers', Olch doesn't whitewash Rogers' insecurities, nor does he paint him as a victim of circumstance. Instead, what emerges is a man struggling to deal with the overbearing weight of expectation, never quite satisfied with what he has, and always searching for a new means of expression.
The meta-documentary aspects of the film are also really interesting. This is a film where director Olch sifts through a documentary shot by Rogers (who was, to be fair, Olch's teacher). The narration takes on a personal, almost confessional tone as Olch switches to Rogers' diaries, and the debt to fellow Harvard filmmaker Ross McElwee is much more obvious. In fact, McElwee's personal excavation in Bright Leaves, as well as that film's use of sources outside the usual documentary style, seems to shape The Windmill Movie. The narration also sounds, at times, like something Bret Easton Ellis would write, and the dry tones of Olch's voice lend a certain equanimity to Rogers' passionate entries.
Sourced from numerous places, from 8mm footage to then-cutting edge video, The Windmill Movie looks surprisingly of a piece on DVD. The transfer is generally strong, with not serious compression or artefacting problem. The surround audio track keeps the narration front and center, though there are occasional moments of directionality. Subtitles are offered to make sure that some of the conversations captured with lesser fidelity are still intelligible.
The main extra on the disc is a pair of short films by Rogers. The first, "Elephants: Fragments of an Argument" runs about 25 minutes long, and includes an assemblage of diverse materials into a dreamlike collage. The other film is "226-1690" (also known as "The Answering Machine Movie"), and runs 27 minutes long, with answering machine messages played over footage captured in the city. Housed in the DVD case is an essay by Scott Foundas on the film.
Biographical films, especially those that take on a subject who dies young (Rogers was killed by cancer at 57), are generally sad. The Windmill Movie is no exception. Knowing that Rogers died before finishing the film, and putting the demons it represents entirely to rest, makes watching the movie a somewhat wistful experience. Potential viewers should also know that Rogers was not shy about including nudity (male and female) in his films, so there's a bit of that on display. It's not anything like the majority of the film, but sensitive viewers should be appraised.
The Windmill Movie is a fascinating look at one man's life through a film that might have been. Although it can a slightly sad experience, the film is worth watching for fans of personal documentaries and experimental cinema.
It would be quixotic to suggest that The Windmill Movie is anything but not guilty.
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