Richard P. Rogers was an experimental filmmaker and documentarian who taught at Harvard and spent his life recording himself in the hopes that a coherent self-portrait would one day emerge. It didn’t in his lifetime, as Rogers succumbed to cancer in 2001. But former student and friend Alexander Olchs, with help from Rogers’s wife Susan Meiselas, has now completed the job that Rogers, paralyzed by fears of indulging his own narcissism, had only contemplated. The Windmill Movie is a stirring autobiography-by-proxy culled from 200 hours of footage shot by Rogers and his father, much of it narrated by either Rogers himself or by Olchs reading from a script he wrote in Rogers’s voice. Navel-gazing is what Rogers worried his film would resemble (“The question is always whether there’s something to say…or just auto-eroticism”), but such a fear is only sporadically realized, as Olchs refuses to unduly sentimentalize the deceased’s lifelong hang-ups, which revolved around a host of dualities: his affluent WASP upbringing in the Hamptons and his avant-garde professional interests, his decade-spanning relationship to Susan and his complicating affair with another woman, and the recurring efforts to translate his life to film through both fiction and nonfiction means.
The director’s tight editorial structure manages to hauntingly convey what Rogers sought, as when cheery shots of glittery Hamptons life—which Rogers himself was too polite to bluntly critique head-on—are paired with audio in which he recounts his domineering, larger-than-life mother throwing him and “whore” Susan out of the house on the Fourth of July during a seemingly minor spat. The film’s inclusion of Rogers’s friends Wallace Shaw and Bob Balaban comes off as unnecessarily self-congratulatory. Still, Olchs—benefiting tremendously from Rogers’s marvelously nostalgic and yet immediate documentary footage of his family, his Hamptons birthplace and himself—synthesizes various film sources and devices (on-screen text, montage, contrapuntal juxtapositions) to express, with muted self-consciousness, his subject’s fundamental struggles with feelings about romance, family, entitlement, creative expression. It’s a reconstructed depiction of a contradictory artist and man, an act of memory preservation and facilitation whose eloquence, largely free of pat analysis, captures the messy, paradoxical emotions that often remain irreconcilable to the grave.