What do you call a documentary composed of elements of somebody else’s personal diary film? Homage? Portrait? Assemblage? Case study? After documentary filmmaker Richard P. Rogers struggled vainly for decades to wrap a self-reflexive film about his own dissatisfied upper-class existence, his pic was posthumously completed by friendly elf/ex-student Alexander Olch. Olch utilizes read-aloud entries from reimagined personal journals as structural stepping stones in “The Windmill Movie.” Perhaps better entitled “What Price Closure?,” pic recounts in excruciating detail its own conception, status and conclusion. Appealing to the cinematic intelligentsia and the self-deprecatingly elitist “Sideways” crowd, narcissistic docu could spark lively discussion.
Denied the tools of a Hollywood dream machine to naturalize the good life, indie film is forced to justify class privilege. Where Wes Anderson invites his audience to share in the absurdity of inherited wealth and Whit Stillman aestheticizes boundless yuppiedom, Rogers agonizes over his upper-crust circumstances.
Rogers shot compulsively around his parents’ house in the affluent town of Wainscott in the Hamptons, home of the eponymous windmill which his mother (who was given to throwing out dark hints about inherited madness) apparently believed to be the literal incarnation of her own father.
Shown posing for her son’s camera lounging in a lawn chair and sipping a drink while dressed in a mink coat in July — and later clinging to the framelines, shrunken by cancer — her ghost hovers over the well-appointed enclave which Rogers associates with summers filled with attractive bathing suit-clad women and dipsomania.
Meanwhile, in the movie-mad Hamptons community, Rogers, armed with his unfinished movie, began to acquire the legendary proportions of a home-grown Orson Welles carting around an uncompleted “The Other Side of the Wind.”
Olch includes copious footage of Rogers rationalizing his duplicitous parallel affairs with two women who lived around the corner from each other, one being his lifelong partner and last-minute wife, shutterbug extraordinaire Susan Meiselas (who produced the film).
Detailed minutiae of the physical changes that befall Rogers, from the accidental and mildly heroic loss of three toes to the creeping melanoma that eventually killed him, find equal pride of place.
Olch allows room for “avid epiphanies,” clever segues that satisfyingly link moment to moment to supply subtle subtexts: for example, a cut from Rogers’ mother’s cry “Why didn’t you stick to painting?” to a shot of a white sail brushing through multicolored reeds that could have been lifted from Jean Renoir’s tribute to his painter father, “Picnic on the Grass.”
Conspicuously absent, though, except for a few lovely hot air balloon sequences, is any glimpse of Rogers’ award-winning work as a documentarian. In a film by Rogers about himself, such a structuring absence makes sense. In a work by someone else, however, this glaring omission calls the entire enterprise into question.
Of course, calling the project into question is part and parcel with Rogers’ modus operandi, and Olch happily joins his mentor in gleefully recording every cinematic dead-end he encounters in compiling the magnum opus. Thus Rogers’ early attempts to cast actors in a reconstruction of his bio are extended in Olch’s replaying of earlier-seen footage, casting vague look-alike Wallace Shawn in the role of Rogers.
Yet the question posed into the mirror by a nude Rogers training a camera on his reflection, still echoes at pic’s end: “The question is always whether there is anything to say. Whether any of this means anything or is just a kind of voyeurism, a kind of auto-eroticism.” The jury is still out.