Sunday, June 28, 2015

Netflix Picks: Winnebago Man

Posted By on Sun, Jun 28, 2015 at 7:50 AM

click to enlarge SCREENSHOT
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Whatever happened to Jack Rebney? Known as the Winnebago Man or the Angriest Man in the World, Rebney wrote and starred in a 1989 Winnebago industry film shoot. The obscenity-laden outtakes were an underground humor hit, and after years of tape trading, they made it on to YouTube (see below). The 2009 film Winnebago Man is a documentary about Rebney, the famous outtakes and director Ben Steinbauer's quest to learn about the man who kept losing his cool.

Before YouTube, videos like Rebney's outtakes were passed around on VHS tapes from person to person. The opening scenes establish the Rebney film's pre-internet notoriety; it has been quoted in Hollywood productions, and Dreamworks even has a painting of Shrek as Rebney in its offices. But Steinbauer is curious about how viral fame has affected Rebney's life, if he's even still alive.

Steinbauer finds Rebney acting as the caretaker for a small fishing resort in northern California, living like a hermit. When he first meets Steinbauer and crew, Rebney is placid and well-spoken. But, over the phone, Rebney admits that it was an act; he's still as vulgar and cantankerous as ever, convinced of the failings of modern society (though still a case study in good speaking). Rebney is unwilling to open up about himself and convinced he would have no way of connecting to his audience.

With help from Rebney's friend Keith Gordon, Steinbauer convinces Rebney to attend a specially-organized showing from the Found Footage Film Festival and answer questions. Rebney connects with his fans, who find him sweet and genuine.

Steinbauer does a great job of putting his journey into Rebney's head into context. He has all manner of writers, directors and actors talking about how Rebney's video turned into a secret language among them in the 90s. But Steinbauer also acknowledges how viral fame has gone wrong before. He spends a lot of the film looking at the relationship between viral celebrities and their audiences without making it feel like a thesis.

Rebney himself is a compelling character. At first, he's a spent flashbulb lost in the stockroom. As we meet him, we see a man who has only his principles and the sense that he's outmoded. He worked in TV news until he felt it lost objectivity, then he switched to promo films. Shortly before Steinbauer's second visit, Rebney loses his eyesight to glaucoma; except for his dog, Buddha, he is cut off from the world altogether. It becomes clear that Steinbauer's goal in the latter half of the movie is keeping Rebney connected to the rest of the world.

Stylistically, Steinbauer loves echoing the feel and the shot structures of the original outtakes. He uses shots of himself and Gordon opening the gate to Rebney's home as visual metaphor for Rebney's openness to the outside world – shots made to feel like the Winnebago footage. And Steinbauer narrates most of the film in a pleasant, clear voice which neither bores nor grates.

In the process of looking for the man from the video tape, Steinbauer taps into powerful parts of the modern human condition, like alienation, voyeurism and empathy. Winnebago Man is a funny look into the life of this dedicated curmudgeon and reluctant minor celebrity. So what if it doesn't have the gravity or universal importance of a usual documentary subject? Stupid little things like web videos affect millions of people too. Tune in and leave your ideas about noteworthiness and the door. It's the little things that count.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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