More than once in Alexander Olch’s documentary The Windmill Movie, the late filmmaker Richard P. Rogers explains to his friends how his envy of Steven Spielberg related to a general fascination with anyone who made different life choices than he. Yet judging by Rogers’ 1970 short film “Quarry”—which screens prior to The Windmill Movie—Rogers’ aesthetic sensibility ran far closer to cinéma vérité than to Spielberg. “Quarry” is a strikingly lovely film, shifting gradually from shots of Vietnam-bound boys swimming in a gravel pit to a shot of the pit frozen over and abandoned. The movie’s message is clear: A generation has been targeted and cut down. But while “Quarry” is heavy-handed in intent, it’s nuanced and poetic in execution.
The Windmill Movie, by contrast, has noble goals and a ham-handed approach. Olch was a former student of Rogers’, and his mentor’s widow asked him to sort through crates of film canisters and diaries and turn them into a cinematic monument. For decades, Rogers spent his downtime between for-hire documentaries (and teaching at Harvard) working on an autobiographical film intended to encompass his conflicted feelings about women, his concerns about a family history of mental illness, and his guilt over being born privileged. The Windmill Movie takes some of the material Rogers shot and adds a running narration by Olch, who reads from Rogers’ journals. Olch also includes scenes of Rogers’ chum Wallace Shawn re-creating some of Rogers’ filmed monologues. Picking up on Rogers’ intentions for his own unfinished film, The Windmill Movie means to convey the impossibility of using a medium as fixed as cinema to record a life constantly in motion.
The question Olch never satisfactorily answers is why anyone should care about all this self-aware hand-wringing. A number of filmmakers, such as Ross McElwee, Werner Herzog, and Charlie Kaufman, have made compelling movies rooted in the theme of artificiality in autobiography, but they all approached the subject with a modicum of wit. From the wall-to-wall piano score to Rogers’ tedious navel-gazing, The Windmill Movie renders prosaic and pretentious the churning conflict behind the process of artistic creation. In the end, maybe Rogers didn’t leave his movie unfinished because he died young. Maybe the fine filmmaker responsible for “Quarry” realized that he’d dedicated more than half his life to something that didn’t measure up.