“Winnebego Man” is not, to my great surprise, the documentary about the socially awkward hippie who dropped out and retreated to the wilderness with his girlfriend, only to get them both eaten by a Winnebego.
It is, however, an ugly close-up look at a particular flavor of modern fame that is also explored in a different light in another documentary, also opening in limited release today, and taken together, “Winnebego Man” and “Cropsey” are interesting glimpses at the way our culture is shaped by media, the way media can affect an individual when caught in its unblinking gaze, and the notion of truth as captured by video and by word of mouth. Both films are flawed, but they are dealing with such compelling ideas that I don’t mind, and in fact, I think they’re significant because of what they say about where we are now.
The age of YouTube is an unforgiving one. One mistake, and you will be immortalized, roasted, parodied, chewed up and spit out. Just ask the Star Wars Kid how rough it can get.
There is a hunger for human failure, and video cameras have made what used to be a personal and temporary thing into the potential for sudden international notoriety. Jack Rebney, the subject of “Winnebego Man,” was just trying to film a sales video for the Winnebego company when he stumbled into his fame via a series of profane and furious outtakes that were leaked. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to go this long without seeing any of the clips that seem to be fairly omnipresent on YouTube, and if you’re in the same boat, allow me to introduce you to the miracle of Jack Rebney’s vocabulary, which I warn you is decidedly not safe for work:
Here’s the thing… I don’t think Rebney’s doing anything extraordinary on that tape. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a low-budget shoot of any kind, especially outside in extreme heat or with an inexperienced actor, knows that things can get tense and frustrating. The videos that seem to become the most popular in this age of viral humiliation are the ones in which we recognize ourselves most clearly. Rebney isn’t saying anything outside the possible response of many adults pushed to their breaking points. What you don’t see in this sort of “holy cow, look at the angry guy!” montage that made him infamous is the full context. Obviously, Rebney loses his mind by some midpoint in this footage, and really should have walked away instead of pushing on. But whatever the case, these are the sorts of moments that should be presumed to be private. If you can’t have a process that involves failure before presenting something to the public, you’re probably not producing anything of any worth.
Whatever happened, Rebney dropped off the face of the earth until filmmaker Ben Steinbauer decided to track him down and interview him about the footage. It’s not a spoiler to say that Steinbauer finds him, but it would be a shame to tell you much more about their relationship. I think the movie is very interesting at times, quite candid in many ways, and not really the movie that Steinbauer set out to make. He makes himself a big part of the story, but he doesn’t really have much to say. I think Rebney comes across as a smart but somewhat broken old man who really should be left alone, and the process of making this film feels like a fresh excuse to intrude on something we shouldn’t have seen in the first place. It sort of reminds me of the excellent “Best Worst Movie,” where George Hardy has a bit of a wild ride as he tries to surf the newfound enthusiasm for the film he starred in, the horrifying “Troll 2.” I think “Best Worst Movie” works better, precisely because the focus stays on George Hardy, even though the director could have justifiably made himself an equal co-star, since he was onscreen in “Troll 2” as well. Rebney is basically Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond,” although he sounds more Gerald McRaney. He’s just a guy who has had it. Period. I feel for him. It’s nice in terms of detail, but haphazard. Unfocused as a film.
With “Cropsey,” I think the same sort of thing happened, in that the film that Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio set out to make probably doesn’t look much like the one they actually released. They start out to tell the story of a Staten Island urban legend about a child murdering phantom, Cropsey, an all-purpose boogeyman described different ways by different people, depending on the kids they were trying to scare, and the summer that the Cropsey urban legend became too scary to joke about after the disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger, a young girl with Down’s syndrome. They dig into the story of Andre Rand, the mental patient who was eventually arrested and accused of Schweiger’s murder, and this is a photo of him on the perp walk, the perfect Big Bad Wolf…
… and over the course of the film, Zeman and Brancaccio manage to get completely lost in the echo chamber between the media’s portrait of Andre Rand and the investigation that seems to have been oddly handled and the Cropsey urban legend and, most importantly, the story of Willowbrook, the Staten Island mental hospital that produced Rand. There’s footage here from a 1974 TV expose by Geraldo Rivera, and it’s awful, gut-wrenching stuff. Willowbrook closed, but there’s some insinuation that the patients who were just dumped back into society would sometimes make their way back to Willowbrook, like they had nowhere else to go. That’s the stuff of horror films, and the way it folds back into the idea of how the Cropsey stories spread… that’s the stuff that “Cropsey” does best. I just think the film’s focus is diffused, and it’s so short that any aimlessness feels doubly frustrating.
Whatever complaints I have, I’m glad both “Winnebego Man” and “Cropsey” have at least limited theatrical release, and if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere they’re playing, take a chance on them and let me know what you think.
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