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Meta-Documentary of a Meta-Documentary

The Windmill Movie, Dir. Alexander Olch, Playing at the Film Forum through June 30

Richard Rogers filming.
Richard Rogers filming.

Director Alexander Olch chose an unlikely subject for his first feature film: another documentary filmmaker, one with two hundred plus hours of footage about himself. Actually, Olch kind of fell into the job. Acclaimed documentarian Richard P. Rogers was the long-time director of the Harvard University Film Center and Olch’s film professor. Rogers also lived on the same New York City block where Olch grew up. In 2001, Rogers died from brain cancer at the age of 57. Soon thereafter, his widow, the renowned photographer Susan Meisalas, asked Olch to help finish the film that Rogers intended to be his cinematic opus: a film about himself that remained unfinished at his death. The result of Olch’s work is the sensitive and sophisticated documentary, The Windmill Movie.

While Olch’s movie centers on the autobiographical movie that Rogers failed to complete, Rogers was an otherwise accomplished filmmaker. His beautiful short, Quarry (1970), precedes The Windmill Movie in screenings, and documents a season of happenings at an old stone quarry in Quincy, Massachusetts. In a manner reminicent of Frederick Wiseman, the film angles for the wider, anthropological context of the quarry by juxtaposing popular music and Vietnam War news broadcasts alongside the working class population who visit the quarry to swim, drink, and discuss their lives.

Unlike Wiseman, the fly-on-the-wall master, Rogers’s films often position its subjects in relation to the director. His documentary of Jan Lenica, Moving Pictures (1975), recalls the films of French filmmaker Jean Rouch, whose omnipresence in ethnographies such as Chronicles of A Summer (1961) and Lion Hunters (1965) demonstrates that cinema verité (a term coined by Rouch) is not a portrait of real life, but a real portrait of life existing within cinema. 

Rogers’s obsession with being his own protagonist marks all his work, and will prove his legacy. Elephants (1973) intercuts interviews between Rogers and his family with images of elephants in a zoo. In 226-1690 (1984), Rogers uses his answering machine messages to structure an experimental narrative. These films clearly influenced Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986), and Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect (2003). Whether it be Kahn exploring the architectural work of his father Louis Kahn, or McElwee searching for love and companionship, their films center on the autobiographical journeys of the filmmakers.

Director Olch, however, does not continue the film that Rogers began, and he maintains that The Windmill Movie is not a personal documentary. Olch steps back his own journey to examine the larger issues that confront autobiographical filmmakers. Despite twenty years worth of footage, Rogers failed to weave the autobiography he so tenaciously tried to complete. According to Olch, Rogers never overcame the psychological pitfalls inherent in gazing too long in the mirror.

Olch presents moment after moment of Rogers’s hyper-self-awareness. One scene depicts Rogers saying, “Here is the filmmaker confronting his own image in the mirror. The shot is a cliché, but that’s what the shot is going to be.” Later, Rogers directs actors reenacting bedroom disputes between Rogers and his lovers. Olch characterizes Rogers as a filmmaker who saw his process as profound, but who despised the narcissism required to explore it.

Posing with his life partner, Susan Meiselas, 1970s. © SCM Productions.
Posing with his life partner, Susan Meiselas, 1970s. © SCM Productions.

Indeed, issues surrounding self-representation seem more complex in cinema than literature. In literary autobiography, the writer makes decisions relating to representation across a span of time: the time spent writing. Filmic autobiography requires that such decisions be confronted both during the actual living out of personal experiences (when the filming occurs), as well as in editing, where the storytelling comes together. Following Rogers’s death in 2001, serveral films appeared that explore these issues that so vexed Rogers. 

The most striking contender for pure autobiographical filmmaking is Jonathan Caouette’s powerful Tarnation (2004), a wildly creative self-portrait that turns twenty years of home video into a demented, coming-of-age rock opera exploring sexuality, mental illness, and death. Caouette’s almost accidental success at autobiography stems from the fact that he began filming in childhood—well before he could even conceive the film his adult self would make. Herein, Caouette manages to maintain a distance between his roles of child/character and adult/filmmaker. Conversely, Rogers filmed and edited over many years, blurring any possible distinction between himself as character and as documentarian.

In Grizzly Man (2005), director Werner Herzog incorporates autobiographical footage filmed by his protagonist, bear-enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Grizzly Man’s narrative structure relies on Herzog’s journey as director wrestling with his subjects’ self-filmed behavior. Both Treadwell and Rogers met with untimely deaths that catalyzed Herzog and Olch to step in and utilize their subject’s footage. Herzog and Olch both discuss in voice-over their relationships to the material of the deceased.

Jean Rouch would argue that a responsible documentarian must always reveal himself in relation to his subject. While Rouch would be unconcerned with a term as vague as “personal documentary,” The Windmill Movie is really two personal documentaries—one of Rogers and one of Olch. Rogers explores issues of self-representation during the filming and Olch during the editing/writing. Olch begins The Windmill Movie with Rogers’s voice-over, then continues with his own voice, speaking for Rogers in the first-person. This enables Olch to maintain focus on Rogers, but it also positions Olch as a young filmmaker who admires and identifies with his mentor.

Indeed, the greatest success of The Windmill Movie lies in Olch’s determination that Rogers’ journey—and not his own—dictates the film’s exploration of authorship. Herzog’s Treadwell is an eccentric who utilized his camera as a diary, but it is Herzog’s film that explores the implications of Treadwell’s filming. Olch’s Rogers, however, proved so compulsively absorbed by the dialectics of self-representation that any commentary by Olch would be a dilution. “The question is always whether there is anything to say,” Rogers says, “whether any of this means anything or is just a kind of voyeurism, a kind of autoeroticism.” 

The Windmill Movie closely examines the motivations of those who film themselves. Scenes show Rogers interrogating his mother about her love for him, and in an interview with his father, Rogers asks, “Do you think you change things when you remember something?” Olch questions whether Rogers’s obsession with self-representation is a sympton of underlying personal duress. Andrew Jarecki asks similar questions in Capturing The Friedmans (2003), which incorporates home video footage taken by the Friedman family while under indictment for pedophilia. Unlike the written word, film holds people to what they say. The Friedmans use video to pressure family members into setting the record straight.

The motivations behind many autobiographical films are at least partially therapeutic in nature. Nathaniel Kahn comes to terms with his father’s absence from his life. Jonathan Couette uses the power of the camera to demand that his relatives tell him the truth about his childhood. Armed with new answers and confronting his film’s need for a narrative turning-point, Caouette forces himself to reconcile these issues on camera and start his life afresh. In The Windmill Movie, Richard Rogers strives for a happy ending but fails. Olch, however, opts to tell a more universal story about loss, memory, and the stress of creating. His unobtrusive narrative structure results in a deceptively simple documentary about a man making a complicated documentary about himself. 


Malcolm Wyer

Malcolm Wyer--in the name of literary theory--aims to push poetry to the brink of extinction.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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