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With: Jack Rebney, Ben Steinbauer, Keith Gordon, Nick Prueher, Joe Pickett, Douglas Rushkoff, Charlie Sotelo, Cinco Barnes, Alan Berliner, Mike Mitchell, Alexsey Vayner
Written by: Ben Steinbauer, Malcolm Pullinger
Directed by: Ben Steinbauer
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 85
Date: 03/14/2009

Winnebago Man (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Doing a Kindness

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new documentary Winnebago Man may seem like a lightweight entertainment, based on an accidental viral video phenomenon, but in a way it has more potential than many heavier documentaries. Any documentary about a single, living subject has the best advantage. First, you have the actual person to interview for the camera, rather than his friends and family, or "experts" on his life. Secondly, you have an entire film to devote to this one person, rather than dividing up the running time among many participants in a story. The greatest documentary ever made, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, managed to plumb the depths of its subject's soul for an astonishingly "complete" portrait, all in just under two hours.

In the late 1980s, a man named Jack Rebney made an industrial film for Winnebago. A tape of outtakes was somehow collected, and it proved to be oddly entertaining, full of unique and passionate swearing, and a fascinating use of the English language to express fury and frustration. The tape began circulating, first on VHS, then on YouTube. Now it has potentially millions of fans, including Ben Affleck (who quoted Jack in one of his movies).

Documentary fans will notice that Winnebago Man follows a similar arc to the recent Best Worst Movie, in that it tracks some oddball characters that have become famous for the wrong reasons. True to form, though Best Worst Movie found one interesting character in dentist George Hardy, it was obligated to spend some time with the rest of the cast and crew of Troll 2. But Winnebago Man gets a luxurious 85 minutes on Jack Rebney, and nothing but Jack Rebney.

Director Ben Steinbauer devotes part of the movie to explaining Jack's fame. Then Steinbauer must actually find the elusive Jack, who has become a hermit in the mountains of Northern California. Jack spends a bit of time performing for the camera, and only at about the halfway point do we get the real Jack. The film winds up with Rebney attending the Found Footage Film Festival in San Francisco, and softening up in the presence of a theater full of adoring fans. Though this ending is sweet, it's not very satisfying. It feels like a reality show stunt, taking the subject out of his element. Likewise, Steinbauer never seems to connect with Rebney. They have some onscreen fights and some banter, but the sense of a genuine connection is a bit elusive; it's perhaps an attempt to make the film funny, rather than profound.

The single-living-subject documentary may be the most promising, but more often than not, filmmakers fail to fulfill its awesome potential. Ultimately, I guess I enjoyed Winnebago Man, but I knew it could have been more.

Kino released the DVD, complete with footage from the New York premiere (with Michael Moore), the complete Winnebago sales video, and a trailer. Oddly, the main thing it's missing is the actual collection of outtakes that inspired the entire documentary. Fortunately, they're still widely available on YouTube. See the link above for the long version, or this, more widely viewed link.

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