After premiering at the SXSW Film Festival in 2009, the documentary Winnebago Man, directed by Ben Steinbauer, has finally gotten limited release in theaters. And for anyone interested in the culture of viral video, it’s a must-see.
The film follows Steinbauer’s efforts to track down and connect with Jack Rebney, who was a viral video star before the days of YouTube thanks to a video of outtakes from an industrial film about the Winnebago. If you’ve never seen it before (seriously?) here’s one version of the footage, with over two million views.
A while back, I wrote about how the addition of context can affect our enjoyment of viral video, a topic that’s very much at the heart of Winnebago Man. Steinbauer addresses the subject of Rebney’s online fame by first looking at the examples of Ghyslain “Star Wars Kid” Raza, who dropped out of school and checked into a mental hospital as a result of his online ridicule, and “Impossible is Nothing” video resume-maker Aleksey Vayner.
In the film, Steinbauer interviews Vayner, who seems to have moved past the incident (and smiled when asked if he’d seen Michael Cera’s tribute), but did talk frankly about receiving death threats via email during the video‘s heyday. In short, Vayner seems like he deeply regrets making the video in the first place.
Of course, he had no idea what would happen when he did (Impossible is Nothing was not put online by him; he submitted it privately when applying for a job at UBS). He didn’t have a choice in his fame, like Raza or Rebney — it was thrust upon him. As opposed to those participating on a reality show, where they are consenting on some level to being humiliated, those whose bad days and private moments are used for catharsis didn’t necessarily sign up to have their nut shots watched by millions online.
Without revealing too much, Rebney’s relationship with the Winnebago Man viral, as depicted in the film, is deeply ambivalent — especially when it comes to those who have helped the video spread, a subculture of folks he thinks have “room temperature IQs.”
But since the making of this documentary, Rebney has become wiser to the ways of web video, based on comments he made during a panel on the documentary at the 2009 SXSW fest. Rebney now sees the motivation for viral video as being that “We’re looking desperately for something to laugh at when we’re in desperate straits. People want to know that they’re not alone in the realm of making dastardly mistakes.”
The conclusion Steinbauer draws is similar; that we as an audience are ultimately sympathetic to the accidental “stars” of viral video, that we connect with them rather than distance ourselves. It’s a question I hadn’t properly contemplated before seeing the film, but after the fact it makes sense. Because if we didn’t, on some level, put ourselves in the shoes of a nut-shot victim — would we still wince?
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