Winnebago Man (2009) Review

Many documentary filmmakers have to at some point insert themselves into the lives of their subjects in order to get the story in front of the camera. Actually incorporating that blurring of boundaries between documenter and documented into the finished film is tricky business; at best, you're David Maysles, capturing unforgettable material from Little Eddie Beale whilst engaging in shy flirtation with her from behind the microphone. At worst, you're Michael Moore, piling the post-9/11 sick on to a boat, sailing through the seas of self-parody to Cuba, drowning your own good intentions further with each nautical mile.

Rarely is a filmmaker's experience of becoming part of their story presented with as little artifice and self-service as in Winnebago Man, Ben Steinbauer's document of his mission to first find Jack Rebney, the man who became a cult celebrity via a widely circulated video of his profanity-packed outtakes from a motorhome industrial video shoot, and then coax Rebney into coming to terms with his unlikely notoriety. The film works on a number of different levels: as detective story, as a no-frills work of historiography on the strange new phenomenon of accidental celebrity motivated by the rise of viral web video, and as insight into a filmmaker's process of discovering what story he's telling and how to tell it. Structured against a narration (spoken by Steinbauer, scripted by Steinbauer and Malcolm Pullinger, who also edited) of remarkable candor and clarity, on the whole Winnebago Man is an incredibly literate examination of YouTube culture (arguably the biggest threat to actual old-school literacy to be invented in decades), its discontents, and its half-hidden side effects. After years of obsession with the Winnebago Man video (alternately known as "Angriest Man in the World"), Steinbauer attempted to track down its "star", with few results. Early in the film, he wonders if Jack could be "living a normal life somewhere, unaware that he'd become a new kind of celebrity." What Steinbauer soon learns is that this kind of celebrity is nearly impossible to escape, but that Jack Rebney has spent twenty years living in a secluded cabin trying to do just that. Jack does respond to a letter sent by Steinbauer to a PO box tracked down by a public detective, and, repping himself as an unassuming old man who doesn't get what all the fuss is about, allows the filmmaker to come visit him. The man Steinbauer meets at first is nothing like the Angriest Man in the World, and Ben's disappointed. "I thought there'd at least be a little swearing," he complains. Be careful what you wish for: soon enough, Jack calls Ben and insists that he was putting on a front that day at his house. As the two men develop a relationship, the swearing comes back in abundance, but with it comes an understanding of what it feels like to feel misunderstood on a the epic scale afforded by viral video infamy. Soon Steinbauer is trying to convince Rebney to "use your notoriety", to use the very tools that have hurt him to restore his identity.

One of Winnebago Man's key moments comes when writer Douglas Rushkoff addresses the filmmaker from the english movie source, who is not on camera. "You're paying the price of our collective cultural guilt at having humiliated this person. You're going back and finding, 'Well, what happened?'" This idea of excavating the truth behind the laugh or the stunt seems anathema to the very pleasures that anonymous online consumption would seem to offer. As one Winnebago Man fan puts it, "I don't want the reality of it. I want the bafoon." But Rushkoff sets up the idea that in the age of Internet culture, YouTube - an almost uniquely non-narrative phenomena - doesn't replace filmmaking; in fact, it makes traditional filmmakers more important. Somebody needs to step outside the Roman coliseum-like panopticon of shame and create a record of it, to help us understand what it is we're seeing by putting it in the context of storytelling. It becomes crucial, then, that this film include the anxiety that goes into shaping the real raw matter into a solid story, because that act of constructing a mirror becomes part of the story of always-on, always-watching culture. It helps that Steinbauer has a natural curiosity and transparent delivery that is incredibly appealing. It takes a very specific kind of personality for a filmmaker to succesfully insert themselves in a not-inherently personal documentary and convince us that they need to be there, that their experience of discovering and telling the story is actually an indispensible part of the story itself. Smart but not a know-it-all, preppy-cute but self-effacing, Steinbauer not only has the charisma to pull it off in Winnebago Man, but you could easily see him applying this approach to other projects. The filmmaker never makes it about him - it's clear throughout that he's onscreen because that's the most direct way to tell this story, and he wants nothing more than to serve as a conduit between what he sees and what he wants us to see. You don't realize how sorely this kind of personal reportage is needed until you see it.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) Review

Capitalism: A Love Story leads into a typically Michael Moorean voiceover pondering what our civilization will be remembered for centuries after our demise: funny cat videos, or the forced evictions resulting from the mortgage crisis? The actual answer is probably either "both" or "neither," but the question is a rhetorical device. Capitalism: A Love Story is primarily an examination of how the country's romance with free markets spectacularly soured, and secondarily an ode to the ways in which the masses have made their heartbreak visible, including viral video. Moore wisely spends less time intervening into the action here than he did in Sicko, often letting public eruptions of frustration speak for themselves.

Early on, Moore admits that he, too, fell in love with post-war capitalism as a child, and that the system used to work pretty well for the average middle-class American - even if it was made possible by a lack of global competition made possible by the United States' military dominance. The problem is that there is no middle class anymore -- there is only, as one subject of the film puts it, "the people who got nothing and the people who have it all" -- and this Moore blames first on Ronald Reagan, who he slams as an actor-turned-pitchman-turned "spokesmodel as president," then on the subsequent intermingling of Wall Street firms and government sectors. The film completely avoids the concept of personal responsibility, going out of its way to sell the notion that no intelligent human being could have been expected to understand the new financial instruments that governed the loans they signed their names to, thus ensuring that the predatory institutions and the congressional actions that bulldozed regulation to make way for them deserve the totality of the blame for the financial meltdown. It has become so bad, according to Moore, that pretty much every representative of the Catholic church that he could find in the midwest believes that contemporary capitalism is "evil."

Beyond the deliberate muddying up of various explications of the jam we're in (Moore stops just short of the "Math is hard" defense), structurally, Capitalism is almost free-associative. A story of a corrupt, for-profit juvenile hall tracks into Sully Sullenberger's congressional testimony on the broken airline industry, thanks to the wire-thin connection that a boy unjustly banished to said juvie wants to become a pilot; Moore then has to tread very carefully from there to make the point that salary cutbacks for pilots have a direct correlation to crashes. One wonders if Capitalism won't look almost avant garde when seen decades removed from the Moore cult of personality, which has a tendency to make his work seem more commercial than it really is.

And yet, the film is still full of patented Michael Moore shtick - the star/director has a bullhorn in one hand, and the other is permanently poised over the kitschy stock footage button. A major misstep is starting the picture with the borrowed B-movie warning that what we're about to see is "truly one of the most unusual movies ever made," when in fact this director has made several employing the exact same methodology. Footage Michael Moore getting turned away from a corporate headquarters by unsmiling security officers is, by this point, so familiar and so lacking in new information that it plays like white noise. But in Capitalism's only truly interesting twist, Moore freely acknowledges that said shtick is reaching the limits of its effectiveness. After two decades, his filmmaking methods are essentially the same, only more so, and the problems depicted in Roger and Me still exist, only more so. "For twenty years," he sighs, "I tried to warn GM and others that this was coming, to no avail." He acknowledges that the public theater that has become his trademark has become ineffective: "I've not been let into this building for twenty years," he tells a guard at the bankrupt corporation's headquarters. Later, he includes footage of an onlooker on Wall Street telling him to "Stop making movies." At the end of the film comes his most resigned voiceover rejoinder yet. "I can't keep doing this," he tells us, "Unless you join me." As long as this is meant as a general call to noisemaking and not to the stale rent-a-cop bullying that accomplishes nothing other than making this film a good 25 minutes too long, then I'm in full agreement.

The Art of the Steal (2013) Review

As Don Argott's documentary The Art of the Steal informs us more than once, Henri Matisse called the Barnes Foundation, Albert C. Barnes suburban Philadelphia shrine to his own hot-shit art collection, "the only sane place to look at art in America." A proudly one-sided vilification of the collaboration of state and corporate forces in an effort to move Barnes' collection five miles from a private institution in Lower Merion to a public museum in Philly proper, The Art of the Steal dismisses the possibility that the relationship between common perceptions of sanity and the socio-economic support systems for looking at art may have evolved since Matisse last visited America. It's a "Little Guys vs. The Big Corporate Bad" story, which spins on the irony that the little guys are feverishly trying to protect a rigid set of regulations spawned from resentment over rejection by "the elites," while the descendants of said elites are ostensibly using their capitalist prowess to aid The People. And, of course, make a profit on said aid.

A working-class Philadelphian who made a fortune off the sale of a VD vaccine, in the early 1910s Barnes began investing his money in the best works of European modern masters, some of which, over the next couple of decades, the Depression allowed him to pick up for a song. He opened his foundation in 1922, and in 1923 hosted a public exhibition which was panned by the Philadelphia elite. Burnt by their rejection, Barnes subsequently went to great lengths to exclude the art establishment from having access to his work. Refusing to allow the pieces to be lent, moved or sold, he accepted visitors on an application basis, and was known to brush off anyone identifiably elite or powerful with a rejection letter "signed" by Barnes' dog. Against the institutional limitations and biases of art history, Barnes strongly desired for his collection to remain separate from the art world's model of canonization and commodification, and accessible to art appreciators with backgrounds like his own.

To that end, he stipulated in his will that when he and his immediate trustees died, control of the collection would go to Lincoln University, then a top college for black men, which by the 90s had fallen on hard times. Seventy years of operating as an obstinate non-profit had not been much kinder to the Barnes Foundation; according to Richard Gately, an ambitious lawyer who became president of the Foundation via the Lincoln relationship, the building housing the collection was in need of a new air conditioning/ventilation system and general renovations (according to a group of former trustees and Barnes associates known as Friends of Barnes, the whole "renovations" tactic is a classic robber baron move and shouldn't have been trusted, although it's hard to believe a building wouldn't need a bit of rehab after 70 years). Citing a clause in Barnes' will which specified that its basic stipulations could be violated if necessary to protect the collection, Glanton first arranged to send a selection of Barnes' paintings on a world tour, and then was instrumental in arranging a legally specious deal that would pay Lincoln to give up their control of the collection, paving the way for a move to a commercial facility.

All of this went down much to the chagrin of the Friends, who provide talking head testimony that serves as the primary source for Argott's argument. Barnes, in his mouthy misanthropy and rejection of the social spoils of wealth, is a hero to the Friends who, in telling this story and their involvement in it, largely come off as indignant and vaguely hypocritical in their "art for all! But get the rabble off our lawns, please" populism. They certainly have cause to be angry over the fact that Barnes' will and wishes have been violated in the name of increasing tourism, but by repeatedly referring to the planned move as a "tragedy" on par with The Rape of Europa, the Friends do their cause no favors. As gratingly one-note as the argument gets, it would have been nice to see such consistency in the film's craft. Argott vacillates between standard-issue nonfiction filmmaking tropes (time lapse cityscape videography, "this is important stuff!" ambient score) and bold stylistic choices, such as ghostly super8 footage of the collection, and the use of distorted electric guitar to underscore the idea that Barnes was a rebel with particular (and particularly justified) animosity towards the Philadelphia art elite. For a film so dependent on talking heads, it's worth noting that the talking head interviews are unusually intimate and dishy, with the angriest subjects offering the best material. I particularly liked a dead calm rant from David D'arcy slamming Philadelphia art donor Raymond G. Perelman as "a nasty old man. Spell my name right, and make sure he knows that."

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