Friday, March 20, 2009

The Winnebago Man

This is an amazing documentary by UT's own Ben Steinbauer. Apparently this documentary has been three or four years in the making and it shows. Having known about the project (though very little), I am completely blown away at the artistry, emotion, and talent that have been put into this film. I believe that this documentary will have a long life as a piece on the American pop culture of viral videos (as it should)!

I have a little criticism, however, about the structure and exposition of the film. It had become apparent to Ben that the documentary would need to include himself through his perspective. Unfortunately, I don't believe he set this up in the best possible way. Just as it was an after thought to have Ben as a character, it appeared as though it was an after thought within the film. The only clue as to his inclusion was him doing the voice overs and brief narrative sequences. Ben never introduced himself, and never addressed the camera in a real way (only through fake set-ups). Even when he was interacting with Jack Rebney, it seemed as if he was putting on an act - like he truly wasn't relating to Jack as Ben Steinbauer but as filmmaker Ben Steinbauer. Although the documentary isn't ultimately about Ben's personal quest to find the man behind the infamous viral video personality, it was a significant aspect and I believe a greater effort could have been made to expose the character Ben Steinbauer and his personal perspective in the introduction. Who is Ben Steinbauer?! (Somewhat irrelevant, but the way documentary included him it seems like a pertient question).

Some techniques that Ben uses that I've noticed are his tendency to shoot with real film - most of the time for b-roll footage. At one point they wanted encapsulate the beauty and serenity of northern California. Using film was an excellent idea in capturing the nuisances of the light and color of that region. Within these b-roll shots, he would shoot "portraits" of characters like Jack. For example, it would just be Jack standing there looking into the Sun. This device is useful in that it allows time for reflections and transitions. It was also justified by the fact that up to that point we had not seen Jack at all but from the worn out and degenerated VHS video. This was the time to look at the man - the Winnebago Man.

Some people may dis- me on this one, but I feel the introductory sequence of a film is an extremely important aspect that initially develops the mood and expectations for the film. Needless to say, I was blown away by the documentary's opening title sequence. Very beautifully and graphically done. Call me out on being a formalist but from that point, because of the artistry put into that sequence, I knew I was going to see an excellent documentary. Production value.

The documentary was great, and if you weren't able to see it at this SxSW film festival, I feel sorry for you. Those who went to the screening in which Jack made an appearance, well, I'm jealous.


  1. I agree with Brett on the greatness of this film. It was really a fun, funny and emotional piece of work. I actually was close to crying at the end, which is strange because Jack Rebney doesn't seem like a man I would really like. And his character isn't a likeable character. He swears and yells at people all the time. He has a huge sense of authority with his voice that he unfortunately casts on people. But Ben Steinbauer does an excellent job at showing the human side of Jack.
    The first half hour makes light of viral videos. This portion was great! With the evolution of youtube, people are able to post videos of other people without asking permission. It's like freedom of the press, but with spectators looking on to a terrible accident. Ben interviews the inventor of the term "viral video" and hosts of "The Show with No Name" to talk about this new phenomenon. He then leads into the harm these videos cause the subjects in the film with the example of the "Star Wars Kid" who was emotionally distraught with the bad attention he received after a schoolmate posted his video on youtube. The boy checked into a psychiatric ward.
    This devastation led Ben to wonder about Jack Rebney. Did he flee the world in order to escape the attention of his Winnebago video? Was he dead? Was he hurt?
    I think this was a wonderful decision in creating Jack Rebney as a heartfelt character who hid his emotions well by adding the word fuck to every noun in his sentence.
    Ben gave great gratitude to the editor Malcolm Pullinger. I must extend that appreciation. I think Ben started out with a linear story in mind, but it was not possible once he found Jack Rebney. The editing was the icing between the cake, forming a tight and entertaining documentary. The linear story was formed. It also carried the wave of emotions a viewer expects: laughter, sadness, frustration.
    The only criticism I have is that I thought the ending was a little long. I don't want to give it away, but I think Jack's Q&A could have been cut down some. I also think there were too many audience shots. It brought me out of the story.

    Check out the website:

  2. Because I have awesome hookups, I got my hands on the festival screener for Winnebago man, and let me start by saying - GOD DAMN GREATNESS! I had loved the youtube clip of Jack Rebney (which I first saw through Steinbauer in his 318 class - shameless plug?) and this in-depth look at how viral video has changed our culture is relevant and enlightening. Ben did a great job with portraying Jack and editing together his story.
    I was delighted to see that Jack was alive, well and just as pissed off as ever. Even though Jack could have been an unlikable character - his crew really seemed like they thought he was a huge asshole - Steinbauer really did a good job of making him into a sympathetic character. The coverage of other viral video stars (Star Wars Kid, Achieve anything dude) and how the unwanted popularity affected them gave a different taste to the youtube culture I hold dear. It is certainly a new and pertinent social issue - the alienation of a bunch of people humiliated by embarrassing videos posted online. Jack's story is emblematic of this - someone whose job was lost and "fame" was made on the worst day of his life. I also though Steinbauer did well in showing Jack's growth - when his expectation of a dumbed-down crowd of media junkies is reversed at the found footage festival.
    I also thought Ben's editing was well-structured and clean. After a great introductory sequence, he created a linear narrative that bounced back between his own quest for the truth and Jack's experience. This moved the story along at a nice clip and in an interesting manner. I was enthralled throughout almost the entire film. The one gripe I had was just after Ben's first meeting with Jack: the film seemed to slow down and several of the sequences immediately following dragged. I felt like the film lost some energy here, but when Ben convinces Jack to go to the festival it picks back up. Overall it was well-done and funny, a film I think could get picked up in the near future.

  3. Winnebago Man= by far my favorite entry of SXSW 2009.

    Many moons ago, when I was just a wee lad in RTF 318, I was visiting Ben during office hours to get some feedback on my final short project. He gave me some constructive criticism, and then we waited around for another student to come so we could all discuss the final exam. To kill time, I asked Ben what he was currently working on.

    He asked if I remembered the Winnebago Man clip he had shown in class (an example of a bad on-set experience), and when I said I did, he told me he had tracked Jack Rebney down to northern California where he was living a hermit-like existence. As of that moment, the initial contact was all that existed of the film tentatively titled "The Angriest Man in the World".

    When I got my festival program for SXSW, I was delighted to see that "Winnebago Man" was featured in the documentary competition. After getting off work early, I planned an all day doc-fest, and only managed to get in with the guest list crowd for Winnebago Man due to some high-class sneakin'.

    Man, I'm glad I got into that screening. Not only was Winnebago Man an incredibly unique story idea, but it was handled so expertly by Ben. The initial quarter or so of the film was a brief look at the viral video phenomenon, and the insight given by several talking heads was great. Once Ben met Jack, the sparks really started flying, and the footage captured by Ben and Berndt is really nothing short of hilarious.

    Much like Alan Berliner and his father, Ben slowly wears down the initially reluctant Rebney, pressing him on his personal life, past history, what happened on that fateful day, etc...when Jack does open up, it's very powerful stuff: the man who at first seems like every other angry jerk you've known is revealed to be a passionate, incredibly well-educated and concerned individual just trying to shake up the world with what little time he has left.

    Winnebago Man is really about a man who has given up on himself and the world who makes a triumphant return before it's too late. Once we see Jack hit the Q&A at the found footage festival, the true message hits you: these people don't laugh at Jack like a clown or a circus freak...what they have for him is a camraderie, and a deep respect, and it's really quite touching to watch Jack come to this realization.

    I really hope this film gets picked up by a major distributor, because it's truly one of the best docs I've ever had the privilege to see.

    PS: My Q&A posed to Jack: "In light of your comments about Bush and Cheney, I'm just curious...did you vote in this most recent presidential election?"

    Jack: "I did vote...fourteen times!"