Trying to fit the world in a box

The Windmill Movie

on June 18, 2009 by Matthew Nestel

Few really know their worth. Richard P. Rogers was riddled with a salvo of self-obsolescence, even as he was budding with ideas. Rogers, who died of cancer a few years ago, left a legacy of work that’s earned him a posthumous imprimatur. Docs, TV show episodes and experimental shorts were just starter dough. His main event was an unfinished opus in the form of an autobiographical maze through the author’s inner sanctum. Like a novel stalled then jumpstarted midway The Windmill Movie is the film Rogers never realized. Director Alexander Olchs, his student at Harvard, took stacks of negatives and somehow managed to trim them all into one can. The work transcends the doc genre and should command a wider release once the jam-packed arthouses convince distributors to give this gem a run in theatres—ideally the kind in which stadium seating is commonplace.

Olchs finds his footing by fusing fiction and non-fiction elements and implanting a voyeuristic mechanism to dissect and splice the vision of an enigmatic genius (who was in effect trying to accomplish the impossible—recreate the precise essence of memories with the camera). Ultimately, a riveting tapestry unspools.

The film tees off with The Quarry a short film circa 1967 about a secret little retreat in Quincy, Massachusetts where twenty-somethings diddled their cares away by smoking, drinking and playing out their own version of the Summer of Love. Rock hits on a radio overlay the boozing, smoking, swimming and necking. Shots of raindrops falling have a grim beauty.

In the making-of film, we see Dick Rogers poring over footage on a flatbed editing machine, cutting a work print of his project. So big and ethereal is the self-reflexive film that Rogers doesn’t seem to know what it is or will be. Yet he’s making it. In one moment he stands before a mirror with his Hi-8 camera, acknowledging the obvious. “This shot is a cliché,” he quips. “It’s the filmmaker confronting himself in the mirror. And that’s what the shot’s going to be.” This sounds sort of defeating but when it comes out of the director’s mouth it’s calculated and brutal. He’s got a roar. Clearly, he knows what he’s doing. Most times though, Rogers is running from internal demons. “I know what I’m after,” he tells himself, “but I’m not sure I’ll recognize it if I see it.”

Fast forward 20 years to a cocktail party where socialites make jokes about Rogers’ project by comparing it to a work in progress War and Peace causing much hysteria. The film reel almost jumps off the projector when Rogers repeats in almost Ezra Pound cadence, “My idea for the film...”

By now it’s clear that Rogers is dead. In his place is character actor Wallace Shawn, who was Rogers’s schoolmate. He, along with actor Bob Balaban, return to Rogers’s home and almost on-cue the films streams back to footage where Rogers is in his house shooting testimonials. The constant play on reality and shifting from past to present makes for an acid trip-like odyssey that slips past three different generations.

Alexander Olchs was daring enough to reexamine the buckets of film that his mentor filled. He slaved over 200 hours of material and figured out that to finish he would have to go where Rogers went and meet who Rogers knew. Well supplied are gazing shots at long-legged gals working on their suntans. But there are scenes with his love interests Susan Meisela the famous Magnum shutterbug, among others. Olchs shoots new scenes that essentially mimic Rogers’s style. When this journey began, Dick Rogers hired actors to play the roles and had planned on intersecting the scripted and unscripted material into one. In lieu of this, Olchs brought on Wallace Shawn to go before the camera and recite quotes from the beast.

There’s no short supply of apologies on Rogers’ part for not being able to show everything. The early memories crystallized so true in Rogers’s youth become untouchable. In the hands of his protégé, however, the self-inflicting wounds about the future, the spiteful sentiments toward Steven Spielberg and envy for the good life no longer exist. Maybe Rogers has some crazy intent to try and offer his reel to God himself and get a pass. Whatever the case, he leaves one heck of a masterpiece for us mortals.

Distributor: A Film Desk
Cast: Dick Rogers, Wallace Shawn, Bob Balaban and Susan Meiselas
Director/Screenwriter: Alexander Olch
Producer: Susan Meiselas
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 93 min
Release date: June 17 NY

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