Richard P. Rogers was born into East Coast WASP privilege and most of its accompanying neuroses. His people summered in the Hamptons. They sent him to Dalton and Harvard to make something of himself. But Rogers became an experimental and documentary filmmaker—a filmmaker’s filmmaker, marginal and respected. He also became a beloved educator at SUNY Purchase. His familial legacy left him with pangs of unease regarding his inability to accumulate wealth and a facility with small talk and tennis. He was simultaneously envious of his more successful (ie: rich and famous) peers and so hopelessly rebellious there was no way he could ever have followed their paths. Most scandalously, he fell for Jewish girls, and eventually, while dying from cancer, even married one, the esteemed Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, with whom he’d shared decades-long romance marked by long absences and affairs with other women—Rogers was an unlikely yet prodigious Don Juan. He died in 2001 at the age of 56.
Rogers was undoubtedly a man of many curious and contradictory qualities, but those listed above are the ones that linger with me after seeing The Windmill Movie (2009). It’s a strange and fascinating artifact: a memoir by proxy, an 80-minute essay constructed from some 200 hours of material shot or collected by Rogers with the vague intention of being either a self-portrait or a critique of the culture that spawned him. Maybe, inevitably, both. It was produced by Meiselas and David Grubin, and directed, edited and written by Alexander Olch, a student of Rogers with a somewhat similar background and a sense of kinship strong enough to encourage Olch to compose narration in Rogers’ voice. Watching The Windmill Movie, you can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t all designed this way, if only unconsciously. Keep in mind: though you may not have heard of him, Rogers was a prolific, hard-working, at times very personal filmmaker—not a dilettante. So if he never finished his Windmill, even when diagnosed with a terminal illness, it might be that he never truly planned to. It’s someone else’s Movie now, someone else’s portrait, though still suitably subjective, poetic, uneven, uncertain, and shot through with lust, indecision, and existential doubt. It’s available this week on DVD from Zeitgeist.
Remarkable images reappear throughout The Windmill Movie, as though circling Rogers’ psyche. Hands at a garden party, the corner of a sail brushing reeds, pretty young bronzed thighs on bicycles or beach blankets: one of the possible themes of Rogers’ project was summertime, the feeling that important things happen in this seemingly most leisurely of seasons. Rogers recalls being taken to the beach as a child and falling in love with other people’s mothers. He reflects on his own mother, abandoned by his father. She appears before his camera, in old age, wearing a wig, at one point shoveling dirt into a car. You imagine her sharing cocktails with reclusive socialite Edie Beale, made famous in the Maysle Brothers’ Grey Gardens (75) and a Hamptons neighbour.
Olch’s assembly is respectful, but not too respectful. He doesn’t flatter Rogers. He understands the perils in making a film about a filmmaker struggling to make a film about a dead filmmaker struggling to make a film, and thus grounds The Windmill Movie in specific memories and encounters, successes and failures. Some of Olch’s additions don’t entirely work. Rogers’ old friend, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn shows up, reads aloud some of Rogers’ musings, and finally feels underused, present mostly as a talisman. But for the most part Olch finds ways to honour his subject while establishing his own voice. There’s little in The Windmill Movie to indicate Rogers’ accomplishments as a filmmaker (nor is this film the place for it), but thankfully Zeitgeist has included two really wonderful shorts by Rogers: ‘Elephants: Fragments of an Argument’ (73) and ‘226-1690’ (84), which chronicles a year in Rogers’ life via views from his New York apartment window and messages left on his answering machine.