Over the past decade, a number of documentaries have explored one person’s obsession over someone who had no idea they’d left an impact on the other. It’s a fetish that’s become increasingly relevant in an age where the internet and social networks make human encounters, embarrassments and indiscretions ever more anonymously accessible than ever. This emerging sub-genre of docs can best be represented by 2003’s Stone Reader and two films from 2009, Best Worst Movie and Winnebago Man. The movies solve mysteries of people who don’t realize they are mysterious, and serve as loving accounts of (and even arguments for) the seemingly trivial: a long-forgotten first/final novel in Stone Reader, a cultishly beloved, stupefyingly bad movie in Best Worst Movie, a viral video in Winnebago Man.
Stone Reader is a respectful quest for Dow Mossman, author of 1972’s The Stones of Summer and nothing else. Mossman’s one-off was forgotten by everyone except for director Mark Moskowitz, who embarks on a journey standing for the fantasies of any awestruck reader who’s wanted to thank the author in person. Moskowitz proceeds with remarkable spadework while pushing through understandable fears that the disappeared one-book author has died or turned deranged. The final, old-fashioned meeting of the minds conveys a power of human presence that fits a movie’s lament over the ever-diminishing prominence of the book as the physical object for which it has been regarded for centuries. (The movie itself is shot on the equally diminishing medium of celluloid.)
Best Worst Movie raises the ante in peeking into the dark side of odd obsession. Its director is Michael Stephenson, former child star of Troll 2, a widely accepted candidate for Worst Film Ever. Yet this bomb’s cult status among fans is pure: an expression of baffled love that came out in ways no one could’ve anticipated. Stephenson thinks it’s good fun; the film’s paterfamilias George Hardy (now a small-town dentist) is first tickled by his following and then increasingly bored with the unchanging fixation of fans at the same events; the Italian director seems convinced he’s made a masterpiece people don’t get; and co-star Margo Prey clearly is in poor mental health.
Winnebago Man is the toughest proposition. Jack Rebney became famous as the “World’s Angriest Man” for a series of outtakes from a tough taping session for a Winnebago sales video. Put together and given to Winnebago executives, the widely-circulated tapes lost Rebney his job, their first tangible negative result. The tapes migrated from much-dubbed copies swapped among friends and public access TV airings to the internet, turning a cult phenomenon into one of the hardiest manifestations of online viral culture.
Alone on a fishing retreat, Rebney’s aware of his internet “fame,” though its specific nature is incomprehensible to him: he’s a man out of time. Winnebago Man is about one man realizing that his “legacy,” such as it is, will never be something he understands or controls: anger from a past life that somehow tapped into the collective id of an unintended audience. The next question, then, has to do with his fans, who (except for director Ben Steinbauer) have no interest in the real Rebney. This is just as well: the real Rebney is the kind of libertarian crank writing cryptic tomes about ancient gnostic conspiracies you can find anywhere in America. He considers himself an intellectual; Steinbauer tactfully keeps his ideas off-screen.
Winnebago Man turns out not to be about the man himself, but about a cruelty underlying today’s culture, where people endlessly consume a limitless stream of sensations, moving to the next before taking a moment to reflect on the lives affected in each spectacle. But like Weezer’s “Pork N Beans” video, it ends with a sense of graceful acceptance: an understanding that one embarrassing moment, rather than being one man’s eternal millstone, can be endearing to millions.
Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.