As the credits rolled for the phenomenal Listen Up Phillip, I felt all sorts of ambivalence. Alex Ross Perry, the wise and manipulative director, is ruthless in this send up of narcissism and self-preservation. But Phillip’s heavy handed voice-overs, long lens shots, and unending cavalcade of sun-streaked/sun-dappled hair and corduroy jackets does a fair job at firming up a little bit of aesthetic distance for the viewer. We’re thankfully reassured of fiction as the characters veer towards disaster in absurd and hilarious demonstrations.
Director: Alexander Olch
Producers: David Grubin, Susan Meiselas
Writer: Alexander Olch
Cinematographer: Richard P. Rogers
Music: Robert Huphreville, Michael Montes
Editor: Alexander Olch
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Bob Balaban, Susan Meiselas, Richard P. Rogers
US Theatrical Release: June 17, 2009
US Distributor: Zeitgeist Video
Alexander Olch’s 2008 film, The Windmill Movie, is so powerful, precisely because it has none of these reassurances towards fiction. It shares many of the same aesthetics as Phillip (the sarcastic voice-over, 16mm, seventies color, beautiful sun-streaked girls, inevitable lounging on beautiful lawns in cutoffs) but all of the narcissism and tragedy of the film pertains to living people.
The Windmill Movie is, nominally, a documentary. It tells the story of an unrealized film set in the summer idyll of the Hamptons, and the man, filmmaker Richard P. Rogers, who spent twenty years of his life on this project. Olch was a student of Rogers. And when Rogers’ developed a fatal condition, he asked Olch to finish the project he began so long ago. Olch’s Windmill Movie is a pastiche of footage overlaid with voice-over by Rogers, that slowly incorporates the footage and voice-over generated by Olch.
Rogers was an artist, teacher, and documentary filmmaker. And yet, his obsessive “Windmill Movie,” a documentary and memoir, concerning his relation to the place in the Hamptons he would go each summer, invaded the other parts of his life. He would work on television projects, but the “Windmill Movie” would remain in the back of his head, an unfinished work, for twenty years.
This obsessive search for the totalizing, the emergence of thematic material to contain everything he wanted to say, mirrors the compulsion of great post-modernist novelists.
In The Recognitions, the novel that came before the twenty-year project JR, William Gaddis wrote: “There’s something about a…an unfinished piece of work, a…thing like this where…do you see? Where perfection is still possible?” Maurice Blanchot writes about the unfinished work as the most pure expression of that work, because it exists in every single iteration imaginable. He calls the creation of any art a necessarily negative act, because it negates every other imaginable iteration. This tension, between the realized and the imagined art object energized a great deal of Conceptualist work, including Sol Lewitt and Bruce Nauman, who frequently sold art pieces that were instructions on how to create an art object.
In his compulsive desire to make the movie he imagined, Rogers began filming every aspect of his life. He filmed unknowing subjects in moments of repose, and elicited exhibitionism in open voyeurism. Some of the most revealing parts of Olch’s Windmill Movie show Rogers with a 16mm camera, relentlessly interrogating subjects (his friends and lovers). After Roger’s death, Olch partnered with his widow to finish the twenty-year project; she leads Olch into a room with 16mm film canisters stacked from the floor to the ceiling, crystalizing the maniac and obsessive scope of the project.
At 82 minutes The Windmill Movie is not the totalizing document imagined by Rogers, yet it contains some of the most indelible film-images I’ve ever seen. It is a beautiful, ephemeral, and heart-breaking picture.