'Winnebago Man' a peculiar stalking documentary

Thu Jul 8, 2010 6:53pm EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The documentary film has acquired a new subgenre, which for want of a more polite term could be called the "stalking doc."

It might have begun with "Roger & Me" in 1989, when downsizing-foe Michael Moore pursued General Motors CEO Roger Smith to the point where Moore became much more famous than the object of his search. It has continued with documentarians trying to score a date with Drew Barrymore or locate Osama bin Laden.

Certainly the weirdest so far is Ben Steinbauer's "Winnebago Man," a film that starts out as a gimmick but winds up as a genuinely touching character study, though one does wonder whether that is what the filmmaker initially intended.

Kino International is releasing "Winnebago" in a slow rollout starting July 9 in New York. It should do above-average numbers in specialty venues, especially because its protagonist reputedly has been viewed by more than 20 million people on the Internet. Indeed, it's hard to imagine anyone basing a documentary on a search for the 76-year-old Jack Rebney, a.k.a. the "Winnebago Man," if he hadn't been the unwitting subject of a viral video.

Some background: This previously unheralded gentleman made an industrial sales video in summer 1988 for Winnebago. It was steaming hot, flies were everywhere, and Rebney couldn't remember his lines. So he had a meltdown, one that included an amazing amount of swearing but also showed that at his most demented, he possessed a self-awareness and keen sense of wit. Those outtakes of his outbursts circulated during the '90s as an underground VHS tape. When it hit YouTube, however, it became a full-blown Internet sensation.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of Web culture is the phenomenon of accidental celebrity, where the posting of a humiliating incident or accident can irreparably damage if not destroy a person's reputation. Such is Steinbauer's fascination -- or is "obsession" a better word? -- with "Winnebago" that he sets out to make a film about tracking Rebney down.

It's hard to pin a motive on this endeavor that isn't negative. In fact, a couple of guys who hosted a popular cable access show in Austin, which delighted in showing embarrassing home videos, try to discourage Steinbauer. There's no reason to know the guy, they point out. That would spoil the fun.

Well, Steinbauer persists and finally, with a detective's help, locates the now elderly man living as a caretaker of a remote mountain resort in northern California. At first, those cable show guys seem to be right: Knowing an accidental celebrity does spoil the fun. Far from retreating from the world in abject humiliation over his Internet celebrityhood, Rebney is too old to give a damn.

Disappointed that Rebney isn't his beloved "Winnebago Man," the filmmaker returns to the mountain, cajoling and hectoring the old man, whose eyesight is badly failing, in hopes of capturing ... well, what does he want? A second meltdown? It turns out Rebney used to be in broadcast journalism and has things he'd like to get off his chest about the world situation. But Steinbauer wants his Winnebago Man. The two argue with more of Rebney's colorful language spicing the footage.

The stalemate is broken when Steinbauer and Keith Gordon, Rebney's best friend for 35 years, drag the old man to the Found Footage Festival in San Francisco for a special appearance before Internet fans. What happens there is genuinely affecting and revelatory. Good fortune smiled on this film, but the feeling persists: This triumph belongs to Rebney, not Steinbauer.

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