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The Windmill Movie: Mr. Rogers' Nieghborhood

The windmills of his mind

The windmills of his mind

When it premiered at last year’s New York Film Festival, where it was one of the most memorable entries, Alexander Olch’s The Windmill Movie was preceded by Richard P. Rogers’ stunning 1970 short, Quarry, and one can only hope the film’s forthcoming HBO broadcast and DVD edition will follow suit. Rogers was not well-known outside documentary and experimental film circles, but he made many films for PBS (among which his William Carlos Williams stands out), as well as taught at Harvard for 25 years, and one of the biggest flaws of Olch’s film is that this fact is mentioned only in passing at the film’s beginning, when we don’t yet know our subject. Most won’t ever have heard of Rogers, who, in addition to his other accomplishments, shot an endless and unfinished personal film over a period of 20 years, right up until he died of cancer in 2001. But this self-reflective and unmanageable piece of work shows him as a charming fuckup at best, the kind of pest who is always filming you at parties — a sort of WASP version of, say, Henry Jaglom.

Olch’s film rarely registers above the level of a salvage job — some of his directorial choices are catastrophic, like his marshaling of Rogers’ friends Wallace Shawn and Bob Balaban — but the material he culls from Rogers’ hundreds of hours of footage is so fascinating that The Windmill Movie makes for compelling viewing. It works best as biography, showing us an often foolish but likable man, but Rogers’ own work-in-progress at some point fatally shifts from an innocuous but possibly great documentary about his family and neighbors in the Hamptons (The Windmill is the name of the house he inherited in Wainscott) to a more treacherous, polymorphous, self-absorbed film combining Super 8mm footage shot by Rogers’ father with Handycam and 35mm film (including some scripted dramatic scenes) shot by Rogers himself. One immediately thinks of Rogers’ friend and Harvard colleague Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March), minus the humor. Rogers himself formulates the conundrum, vowing his work to certain failure: What’s more ridiculous than a rich WASP making a film about his frustrations and existential regrets? “Ça suffit,” utters his longtime companion, Susan Meiselas, while hooking up a brassiere.

Meiselas is, of course, the hugely successful Magnum Photos shooter, recipient of a Hasselblad Foundation prize and a MacArthur “genius” grant, and the imbalance of the couple they formed on and off for 30 years makes for the edgier side of the movie. While there are a few tough moments for her, one wonders what part she, as The Windmill Movie’s credited producer, may have played in the selection of material, and what parts she may have left out. Given the gorgeous footage of golden girls on bicycles and Coppertone-lathered Hamptons wives baking in the sand — cocktail parties, tennis courts, summer sailing and croquet games — one sometimes wishes Rogers had finished that film, a privileged look at privilege, a peep into 1980s late-Gatsbyism. One of Windmill’s funniest moments has Rogers explaining to a neighbor what he is trying to do with his movie. “Regrets?” says Mrs. Bebba Hayes, not unkindly. “Do you have envy of Mr. Spielberg? Would you have wanted a big house? I didn’t think so.” But when Rogers, the owner of the 10-room Windmill house, says wistfully he’d have liked one on the pond, she says, in a priceless bit of comic social satire, “That’s understandable.”

Not much else is, in Rogers’ life — or rather, nothing really works: not the obvious equation he tries to make between a lost baby and his film, not the artists’ rivalry between him and Meiselas. When one sees his gorgeous filming of the summers he wants to capture before they’re gone forever, there is a pang, a wistfulness in those images that is devastating — much more precious for us than Rogers’ existential itch. We are thrown back to the mystery of Quarry, where a whole slice of time past is captured for us in 14 minutes, over Tommy James & the Shondells, and the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love,” and the explosions of bodies hitting water. Rogers the cineaste surely shouldn’t agonize about his framings being inferior to Meiselas’. “You take better photographs,” he whines. “Is this why you think our movie is going to fail?” “Ça suffit” indeed.

Some of the pleasure derived from seeing The Windmill Movie is voyeuristic, a peep into someone’s demons, as well as his most intimate work. There is an abundance of material that we are grateful for, even though it dooms the final film somewhat; Olch and Meseilas can be commended for giving us this at least. Still, there hasn’t been as good a film of this type in this country since Tarnation, which means Olch’s movie is a treat and a surprise no one should pass on.

THE WINDMILL MOVIE | Written and directed by ALEXANDER OLCH | Produced by SUSAN MEISELAS | Film Desk | Sunset 5