Life and Times of Mr. Rogers

Measuring an individual’s impact on a university is a difficult task and is usually divided along the lines of one’s own research or output versus a devotion to teaching. Harvard was fortunate enough to have an individual that combined both in Dick Rogers, a filmmaker and teacher who succumbed to cancer last year. The Harvard Film Archive (HFA) will honor Roger’s career with a retrospective this weekend.

Rogers’s approach to filmmaking was a perfect fit for the university environment: he displayed a boundless intellectual curiosity and a desire for experimentation. According to colleague Alfred Guzzetti, Rogers had “a passion for learning about a subject,” and “what he liked about filmmaking was where it took him.” Rogers engaged intellectual arguments and left his own personal stamp on his work, all with a constant forward energy. Guzzetti characterizes Rogers’s filmmaking as “like packing a suitcase—he tried to get as much in as possible.”

Rogers began his long connection with Harvard first as an undergraduate in the 1960s. Born in 1944 to a privileged family in New York, Rogers attended Dalton High School before coming to Harvard, where he ended up rooming with film critic David Ansen and actor John Lithgow. Documentary filmmaker Janet Mendelsohn, was also a classmate of Rogers, and characterizes him as an “enthusiastic undergrad” who majored in English and wrote his thesis on Joyce’s Ulysses.

In those days, there were far fewer opportunities for a visual arts education, and Mendelsohn says that Dick wanted to get “a Harvard education as Harvard intended it” and that he was “interested in what Harvard stood for.”

However, this did not stop him from painting on the side, as well as teaching himself photography; he took one course, became a lab assistant, and even opened a small photography studio on Newbury Street.

After Harvard, Rogers studied in England for two years on a Fulbright scholarship, where he learned about cultural studies from one of its founders, Stuart Hall. This was a different approach for Rogers given the Harvard English department’s emphasis at the time on New Criticism, which focuses strictly on the text.

When he returned from England, Rogers enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Education in a now defunct Visual Education program, where he met his future wife, the photographer Susan Meiselas, and his friend and collaborator Alfred Guzzetti, who was assigned to him as a faculty advisor. Soon after, Rogers would assist Guzzetti in the shooting of the cross-country road trip film Evidence.

Rogers’s first film was Quarry (1970), a documentary about a swimming hole in Quincy, Massachusetts interlaced with references to the Vietnam War. This was the first of many documentary films for Rogers, whose various films are linked by an emphasis on personal autobiography and a focus on the arts.

Rogers’s films have a strong emphasis on the visual that elevates the image; there are montages of style and organization instead of time sequence, and an interventionist manner. Mendelsohn, who worked with Rogers on Quarry, describes him as relaxed and intuitive behind the camera, always possessing an instinctive feel for how a shot should be set up. Although Rogers often characterized himself as an overachiever who was constantly driving himself, Mendelsohn recalls “an unmitigated, relaxed joy” when Dick was in the process of making the images of a film.

Rogers worked on three films that formed an autobiography. The first is Elephants: Fragments of an Argument (1973), a self portrait made up of family photographs and interviews with family and friends. Next is 226-1690 (1984), a film consisting of different messages left on Rogers’s answering machine during the course of a year.

226 began with both Dick and Susan shooting from the windows of their Mott Street loft in New York City, and was edited and finished by Dick when Susan left for Nicaragua. Her absence is a major part of the second part of the film, and is especially poignant during one of her calls from Nicaragua when a gunshot is heard in the background.

Finally, the third part is a documentary (provisionally titled Windmill) about the community of Wainscott on Long Island where Rogers spent his summers. Rogers had devoted 14 years to the project, but Meiselas recalls how it often took a back seat to his teaching duties. She talks of releasing the film in some manner, possibly in DVD form, in order that the community of Wainscott have access to this rich archive of local history.

One of Rogers’s best known films is Pictures from a Revolution (1991), in which his wife retraces her travels in Nicaragua and results in the photo essay Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979. Ten years after the Sandinista Revolution, her purpose in returning to Nicaragua was to ask the subjects in her pictures “what do they remember?”

Guzzetti describes Meiselas’s initial opposition to appearing in the film, saying that he and Dick argued that they had to get the viewer from one picture to another, and that the only real common thread between all of these pictures was the photographer who took them. Meiselas says that she was ambivalent about her presence in the film, believing that “history was so important,” she wasn’t needed. But her appearance in the film is what really sets it apart, especially the way in which Rogers is able to film her interactions with the people of Nicaragua.

As those who knew him can attest, there was little divide between Dick Rogers the filmmaker and Dick Rogers the teacher. In his final days, Rogers continued to battle with cancer, and even taught full time until the end. In addition to teaching duties, Rogers served as the director of the Film Study Center, a resource for non-student filmmakers located on the fourth floor of Sever Hall. The founder of the Film Study Center and collaborator of Rogers, Bob Gardner, said in an email that, “At the end of his life we were engaged in a number of undertakings that would provide greater opportunities for creative individuals to do independent and experimental films feeling, as we both did, that the media world was unkind and inhospitable to that kind of filmmaking.”

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Rogers is the respect he garnered from students and colleagues. Guzzetti recalls Rogers’s willingness to teach and work with students in styles of filmmaking completely different from his own. Rogers did not withhold criticisms of student work, and students always said that they found him to be demanding but also very supportive. Kyle Gilman ‘02 was enrolled in a course with Rogers when he was diagnosed with cancer in fall of 2000, and said that Rogers was distressed about having to miss classes because of treatments for his illness, but would be there as often as he could. When his strength was waning at the end of spring semester of 2001, Meiselas recalls how Rogers insisted on finishing the semester, completing a 12 hour review of student films and then a several hour working critique of faculty member Rob Moss’s film.

With Rogers’s death, Harvard lost not only a great filmmaker but also a great teacher. His films remain to be enjoyed in screenings such as this retrospective, but his impact on dozens of film students that he taught remains as well.

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