There is a very real windmill in The Windmill Movie, Alexander Olch’s mostly interesting experiment in creative autobiography. It also functions metaphorically (in the Don Quixote sense) as a symbol of the old-money, East-Coast respectability that avant-garde filmmaker Richard Rogers was born into and spent his life railing, futilely, against. Rogers compulsively documented the bundle of contradictions that was his life, tilting desperately against a host of neuroses he simply couldn’t surmount, in hopes of making sense of it in a final magnum opus.
He never did complete the project, and after Rogers died, one of his former students, Olch, was charged with assembling and making sense of the over 200 hours of footage his teacher left behind. The result of this project, The Windmill Movie, is an intriguing blend of documentary and fiction that defies easy categorization -- but here's my stab at describing it: The film is a sort of meta-documentary, or a pseudo-autobiographical piece of creative non-fiction.
Interestingly, the documentary works best not when it’s blowing our minds with its neat, meta-narrative tricks (more on that later), but when Rogers’ footage is allowed to speak for itself. What emerges from the reels of film Rogers took of his day-to-day life is a portrait of a complex man hounded by questions of social standing, marriage, fertility, and the legitimacy of his career as a filmmaker. “Is it just a kind of voyeurism, a kind of autoeroticism, a kind of jerking off?” he wonders aloud about his compulsion to document his life. And, yes, it is masturbatory. But Rogers is just the right mix of sincere, narcissistic, and self-deprecating to sustain such a project.
We learn that, at some point, Rogers largely stopped narrating the footage he shot, making Olch’s task of assembling it into a cohesive narrative significantly more difficult. Olch gets around the problem by adopting a somewhat radical approach: he himself narrates the footage — as Rogers — voicing what he imagines his mentor might have been thinking when he shot it. It’s a provocative conceit, one that opens itself up to all sorts of questions about authorship, identity, and what constitutes “documentary” filmmaking.
Unfortunately, this conceit turns out to be richer conceptually than it is onscreen. Much of the second half of The Windmill Movie is comprised of rather generic footage over which Olch has grafted a semi-convincing narrative that too often does more to occlude the viewer’s understanding of Rogers than it does to augment it. What are we to make the footage of Susan (Rogers’ on-again, off-again lover) silently drinking a cup of coffee while Olch narrates an emotionally charged account of a recent abortion? Are we merely to accept it as fact when the disconnect between image, story, and narrator is so great? At such moments, the film succeeds more as a thought-provoking commentary on the inherently subjective nature of documentation than it does as a portrait of Richard Rogers. Though the film aims to do both, Olch never manages to successfully marry these two (admittedly hefty) ambitions, ultimately losing Rogers’ story in the complex, meta-narrative web he’s weaved.
Still, it’s a daring effort -- and it may also have actually achieved the goal Rogers didn't live to attain. Early on, Olch shows Rogers discussing his desire to make a movie about the faint line between fiction and documentary. The Windmill Movie may just be that film.