Alexander Olch's documentary "The Windmill Movie" is a difficult film to like, and an impossible film to love.
Like its subject, documentarian Richard P. Rogers, it dissembles and remains at a distance from its audience. This lack of lovability isn't surprising. The movie began as a documentary made by Rogers to chronicle his own life. He worked on this autobiography for more than 20 years, eventually shooting 200 hours of film " self-reflection, interviews with family and friends, re-created moments from memory. The result plays Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Rogers made documentaries for PBS, the BBC, National Geographic and other employers. His filmography isn't lengthy; he shot during the summers only and taught film at Harvard the rest of the year. Olch, who was one of his students, knew about this autobiography perpetually in progress, and when Rogers died in 2001 of brain cancer, Olch told the widow, photographer Susan Meiselas, that he would organize the footage, cut it all down to a manageable length, add some narration to cover the bald patches, and complete Rogers' life work. He then spent more than five years on the project, and apparently became as bored with his subject as I did after a mere 93 minutes.
Rogers was born into a wealthy but not mega-wealthy East Coast family, for which he felt a lifelong guilt. He also felt guilty because he wasn't happy, was never satisfied. His house was large, but not large enough. As Phil Gramm once said, "I have as many guns as I need, but I don't have as many guns as I want." Rogers was a successful academic and his cinematography kept him busy, but he whined about not being Steven Spielberg. On film, the man is hard to like.
It is not, however, hard to empathize with him. He had the instinct of an artist and a desire to do more than he did. What was missing? The ambition? The stick-to-itism?
"The question," he admits at one point, "is always, 'Is there anything to say?'" He doesn't want to punch up or falsify the material, and yet he doesn't think the truth is worthwhile. At one point, he gets an actor to play him in the hope that "not being me will help tell a story about me."
He pursues honesty up to a certain degree. He appears to lay his soul bare, but then stops short of revealing who he really is. Does he even know that he's truthful only up to a point?
"I am a man who is capable of making small talk and not much else," he says. A soul laid bare or just a self-deprecating excuse for not finishing the job?
His mother, a distasteful woman, comes across as one of those society types who thinks she is blunt and honest, but actually uses sarcasm as a means of vengeance. Rogers uses much the same technique, but in his case, the loathing is turned inward. Mother Rogers enjoys asking her son, who is behind the camera, if he wants her to be brutally honest about his father, about him. Then she smiles, as if waiting for a reply she knows damn well isn't coming.
The footage of his friends isn't interesting visually nor is it made fascinating by conversation. The wealthy seem to talk about the same things the rabble does, only they think they're being clever when they're just being pretentious. Rogers knows this " if he didn't, he would have discarded this material as being unworthy of his "set." Listening to these people prattle on about nothing but lives lived up their own butts, I remembered that famous dialogue exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said, "The rich are different than we are," and Ernest Hemingway, who supposedly replied, "Yes, they have more money."
Toward the end of "Windmill," we learn that Rogers' father later had a stroke and was diagnosed with depression. Mother Rogers tells us that there is a bad gene in the Rogers family, and Richard narrates that although he wanted children, he never wanted to father any because of what he might hand down to them. After his brain cancer surgery, he admits that, "I get happier and happier the more stupid I become."
By doc's end, I had become wearied by this life of lower-upper-class failure disguised as success. If the question is always "Is there anything to say?" and the answer is "No," the follow-up question has to be "What's the use?"
It's the answer to that one Rogers spent 20 years trying to find. "Doug Bentin