I attended a packed-to-the-rafters screening of this film in Toronto. I can only imagine the response it got at its début in Austin, Texas at SXSW back in March. The director and one of his producers are (adopted) native sons of the town, first off. And secondly, SXSW audiences love their movies and music like nobody's business, according to the fest's new director, Janet Pierson, who spoke eloquently about her newly-adopted beast of a child and the intensity of the audiences in Austin at a panel on film festivals during Hot Docs. (Director Ben Steinbauer and subject Jack Rebney at their SXSW premiere Q&A, courtesy Ingrid Kopp, From the Hip blog.)
There was much love in the house when the filmmakers came up for the Q&A, let's put it that way. And in a town that loves documentaries like Toronto does, that's high praise because Torontonians represent a discerning, sophisticated audience that can think for itself, thanks very much. I haven't seen so many people stay for Q&As at any other festival, really, so that's kind of impressive, and a very generous and precious gift to filmmakers, to bask in an audience's glow after they've seen one's film. Director Steinbauer, producer Joel Heller, and producer, writer, and editor, Malcolm Pullinger, did their Q&A in the dark instead of a basking glow, thanks to a lazy theater grip (there were lights set up, but inexplicably they never got turned on). But, no matter. There was love in the house.
Winnebago Man surprised me in many ways, all of them delightful, and in much deeper ways than one might anticipate when watching a movie about an Internet phenom, merely famous for his RV (recreational vehicle) sales videos, or the outtakes thereof, to be precise. The protagonist, Jack Rebney, the WM of the title, has had his life play out like a Zen koan. In other words, the different aspects or "personalities" his life has taken on are inexplicable, not given to rational understanding; but intuitively, you know you're watching a life lived like a motherfucker. (I know "motherfucker" is not really a Zen kind of word, but I'm speaking Jack's language now--a language of honesty and sheer, human rage at the indignities to which we sometimes have to subject ourselves for our own damned good. Or something like that. I get impatient with Zen stuff.)
And then a nice, clean-cut boy shows up and, politely but obstinately, pulls him out of the obscurity to which he's fled. I was conflicted about how to feel about the relationship between Steinbauer and Rebney for much of the first half of the film, I must say. But that's as it should be since the relationship turns out to be very rich and substantive and complicated and throws curve ball after curve ball beyond your expectations of what kind of relationship these two people could possibly have besides the predictable one. The story arc is highly satisfying thanks to crack dramaturgical work and graceful editing by Pullinger. The story ebbs and flows in a way that makes you relax and sit back and know that you're in the hands of supreme storytellers. And it is definitely a team effort: Steinbauer, as the driver (literally) of the film has a sure authorial voice and an unmitigated comfort in front of the lens, so that part works well. But then, besides the aforementioned Heller and Pullinger, Steinbauer also has Bradley Beesley shooting for him most of the time and Beesley's one of the best cinematographers out there right now--he's a sensitive lensman with an eye for the real McCoy, able to frame almost everything with a deep pathos and understanding and humor, helping a viewer see things in a bit of a more profound way, let's say, than he or she normally would. Talented guy.
This film is currently on its festival run and it'll be a good one. The humanity of this story can certainly touch the lost part of our souls, but it can also revive our sense of mission in living an uncompromising life--no matter the complications one creates for oneself along the way.
My favorite moment of the film (among many)? Jack Rebney getting shooed off the premises of a WalMart property by a scared-shitless store manager already on the phone to the cops before he's within shouting distance of Jack. It's worth the price of admission to hear what Mr. Rebney has to say about that little scenario.
Go see this when it comes to a theater near you. You'll have the time of your life and shed a tear or two. That, and a bag of popcorn and you've died and gone to heaven, right?