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Life Through a Lens

The Windmill Movie (2009)

The Film Desk

To most people Richard P. Rogers probably seemed like a lucky man. Born of the privilege of life on the Upper East Side and the Hamptons, he reached the upper echelon of academics in his professorship at Harvard, thrived as a documentarian and experimental filmmaker, and was graced with three decades of love from the same woman. Yet, as Alexander Olch’s “The Windmill Movie” reveals, a dark and conflicted soul brewed beneath that idealized exterior.

Taking as its basis the many hours of footage Rogers shot for what he called his “Windmill” project, an unfinished autobiographical film he worked on for more than two decades preceding his death of brain cancer in 2001, Mr. Olch uses the filmmaker’s images and words to present the essence of the man. It’s a rare postmortem tribute, comprised entirely of work Rogers created and additions tacked on by the man who assumed the mantle in the same spirit. The ongoing, deeply personal introspection that permeates the picture gives it the haunting feel of a séance, as the themes that most impacted the entire range of Rogers’s life are evoked and explored with understated eloquence.

Mr. Olch’s editing emphasizes several visual motifs, which collectively reveal something close to the full measure of his subject. First, and perhaps most significantly, there’s the repeated specter of Rogers filming himself in a mirror and wondering if there’s anything to be gained from such a solipsistic venture. Throughout, we see him in similarly reserved, quiet moments and during others that reveal the dynamic man who affected many lives. Often, the filmmaker returns to the Hamptons setting that loomed so large, depicting a fancy cocktail party held on a lush lawn adjacent to a windmill as Rogers confronts the increasingly grim realities of his illness.

The first-person sojourn through Rogers’s subconscious, as manifested in the scenes from his childhood, career and personal life, plants the viewer into his psyche more completely than would a conventional, third-person account. Mr. Olch successfully balances the tricky line of staying true to Rogers’s intent while leaving his own imprint on the material. He draws out, and makes relatable, the inadequacies borne out of a life of constant privilege and the sense of having to persistently combat the notion that everything’s been handed to you. With all the tools of cinema at their disposal, both men explore the blend of emotions, memories and ideas that collectively shape a life, and the role of the cinematic apparatus itself in doing so. It’s a heartfelt character study and a fascinating experiment.


Opened on June 17 in Manhattan.

Written, directed and edited by Alexander Olch; director of photography, Richard P. Rogers; music by Robert Humphreville and Michael Montes; produced by Susan Meiselas; released by the Film Desk. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. This film is not rated.


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