March 9, 2011

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Catfish, Winnebago Man, and A Film Unfinished

[Note: This series includes scattered thoughts on various movie-related topics. I was looking for a word that started with the letter "g" that means collection or assortment, but lest you think I'm some elitist wordsmith, know that I'd never heard of "gallimaufry" and I don't even know how to say it, but it was the only other option the thesaurus provided aside from "goulash" (too foody) and "garbage" (no).]

Recently I wrote about last year's trend of playing with the truth, or at least playing it up. I focused on feature films, but there were a surprising number of documentaries from 2010 that belong in the same conversation, such as Exit Through the Gift Shop, I'm Still Here, and three more I recently caught up with:


Take heed if you have not yet seen this film and stop reading. Now. Seriously, if you're planning to watch it (and I think you should), don't read further. 

Throughout last year I stepped around every discussion of it and for the most part I was able to avoid any plot details, which I'm very glad for. Ironically, though, what I wasn't able to avoid were hints that a fair amount of this film was fabricated. With that in mind, I watched Catfish and...still believed every frame of it. At least on first glance, and without giving any critical thought to the filming process. Yes, I found myself eating up every bit of the story, laughing along as the characters acted and reacted as only people of a certain generation would (e.g., hearing a song and having the automatic reaction to look it up on YouTube, or understanding the humor of The Oatmeal). In fact I loved what I was watching, loved how the story was wildly entertaining while also extremely thought-provoking: how do we live when we live - and love - online?

Then it ended, and I then I went online (natch), and then I realized that maybe I'd been taken for a ride. I didn't have any easy answers to a lot of questions people raised, such as why the filmmakers shot so much footage in the early months, or why they suddenly became tech-savvy and suspicious at a very convenient point in the story, or why an 8 year-old had such an active internet presence (tell me we're not already there).

Right now I think I'm content to accept that Ariel, Yaniv, and Henry might have known what they had on their hands right away, but that the way the story developed is the way the story actually developed, and that Nev and Angela were and are normal people who happened to become involved in a very bizarre situation. Maybe all of that is completely false, but frankly, I don't even know if I care much beyond that, or if I ever want to find out. Believe me, I can't explain it, but I can admit it: Catfish was one of my favorite films of the year, not because it offered a scathing social critique (I'm Still Here still has a subtly brilliant position above it), but because it made me think, really think hard and long about what I was watching. Is there anything better than that?

Winnebago Man

Maybe the only thing worse than the nagging fear that you are being lied to online (as in Catfish) is the nagging fear that your offline sins will make their way online. Consider the case of Jack Rebney, who at one point a few decades ago spent a frustrating summer in the hot Iowa sun filming a Winnebago sales video. Between takes Jack turned from Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyll, and the results weren't pretty. The young crew compiled the extra footage and outtakes and shared it with Winnebago (which fired Jack) before sharing it with all of their friends (who shared it with all of their friends). Years later, the internet caught up to the film, and Winnebago Man was born as an official internet phenomenon. Sorry, Jack.

Believe it or not Winnebago Man was my first exposure to the footage, and amusing as it the outtakes are, I never would have thought to do what filmmaker Ben Steinbauer did: track down Jack Rebney and see if he was still "the angriest man in the world". After all, we see weekly videos of complete strangers embarrassing themselves, so what's one more crazy guy?

Well for one thing, Jack's rant happened long before the internet, so immediate investigation was impossible, as was recently the case with Phil "Master's Degree in Communication" Davison and Paul "Double Rainbow" Vasquez. Those guys were tracked down within days and allowed to explain themselves. Jack Rebney never had that chance, and boy did his video deserve an explanation. Why would a Winnebago salesperson be so cantankerous? Was this film a true representation of his character, or was he just a victim of circumstance (a bad day, hot weather, the internet)?

Meeting Rebney in the film now, as a lonely man in his twilight years, I couldn't help but feel a profound sense of sympathy for him, if only because he didn't know what he was up against, and didn't quite know how to fight against the internet and try to clear his name. Moreover, the man himself remains an enigma - we know almost nothing about his past, and barely anything about his post-Winnebago years. If Steinbauer succeeded in showing us how a person can achieve redemption in one of the most bizarre ways imaginable, he still failed, technically, in finding out who the man is in the video. Perhaps tellingly, Jack Rebney has evidently now embraced his persona, preventing anyone from ever knowing the "real" Jack Rebney.

A Film Unfinished

Better than almost any other example I gave in that last post about truth on screen,
Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished demonstrates how powerfully the images we see in movies influence our understanding of reality - or misunderstanding in this case. Millions of us have seen footage from the Holocaust over the years, the horrific abuse and death spelled out in black-and-white images, as if from a distant time or another world. At some point we've probably seen footage of life in the Warsaw ghetto, which was shot and edited by the Nazis for the purpose of propaganda during the war effort. But no one has ever seen the "outtakes", the clips left on the editing room floor that reveal something else entirely about life in the ghetto.

What the Nazi filmmakers knew then, but what we only have learned now, is that the ghetto was essentially a living film set, with actors, staged scenes, and multiple takes, all in an effort to reinforce the stereotypes of Jews that enabled the madness to happen.

Thus, A Film Unfinished reveals two horrifying truths: 1.) We've been unknowingly absorbing this staged and edited footage as a representation of reality for half a century, and that's shameful; and 2.) somehow, the Nazis were more wickedly evil than we may have even suspected. Not only were the Jews in Warsaw dehumanized and exterminated like animals, but humiliatingly forced to act like lesser humans on their way to grim death. It's just unimaginable.

Lastly, and this is unrelated to the film's purpose (I think), but while watching A Film Unfinished I was reminded that I have an incredibly low tolerance for Holocaust footage, including many of the images in this film. I obviously absorb images very intensely (hence my passion for film, hence this blog), and I simply can't bring myself to fully watch, for example, the mass disposal of naked bodies at the end of this film. Knowing that those bodies are human bodies, and that those humans were living, breathing, unique individuals with names and hobbies and personality quirks and countless talents, and that they are separated from me by only a few decades and a few thousand miles, well it's just beyond my ability to grasp in a reasonable way. I don't know how to watch it and not have an overwhelming sense of discomfort, horror, rage, helplessness and, maybe most of all, confusion.


  1. I think I can surely say that I'm with you in regards to the 'truthiness' of Catfish (and Gift Shop, for that matter). Are they fabrications, to some degree or a whole lot of degrees? Maybe, I guess, though I certainly don't think that they are in totality, and if they are, and if the makers of those films are making them just for kicks, then truly they have larger issues that they need to deal with.

    Better to take them at face value and enjoy them for the thought-provoking entertainment that they are than to get hung up on which angle might possibly be false. Either way, they serve as interesting docs.

    Make no mistake, A Film Unfinished is important and features harrowing footage. But even for one of those docs that truly just documents, I found it a pretty poor film that could have been cut in half and still been just as powerful. It was I fell asleep. :\

  2. Hey Fletch, long time no chat - hope and the new addition are well.

    Gift Shop could be a big joke, and I would buy it as a piece of art, but Catfish, yeah not so much. If they fabricated it, wow, I almost appreciate it just as much in some weird way.

    A Film Unfinished - "one of those docs that truly just documents" - ha! If that doesn't say where we are in 2011 with documentaries, nothing does. That's not a knock on your comment but you just reminded me how different Unfinished (a traditional doc, straightforward form, at times boring) is from something like Gift Shop (a questionable doc, half comedy/half mystery, stranger than fiction), yet both are considered documentaries by pretty much everyone. Just an interesting dynamic that I guess I haven't even fully realized yet.

  3. Uh-oh - you re-designed again...

    I've no problem with the varied styles of docs - it's more interesting to have options. We have performance art disguised as a doc (I'm Still Here), horror thriller disguised as doc (Paranormal/Blair Witch), doc doc (Film Unfinished), heavy political-bent doc (Michael Moore), etc., etc.

    And yes, thank you - the new addition is doing quite well. Nearly 4 months old already (though they lie - it's been going by awfully slowly, if you ask me...)

  4. Glad to hear all is well. I just can't imagine how you keep an active movie and blog life (as well as everything else I know you busy yourself with), so congrats on maintaining a steady pulse through the last 4 months.

    And yes, another blog identity crisis on my end necessitated a redesign. Still planning on a more appealing header, but we'll see when that develops. It was kind of rash decision to repaint the walls last week when I sat down and realized the place was in serious need of some kind of jolt of energy. Were I still posting on any kind of regular basis I would have considered moving into the direction of your 21st century design; apparently I've gone back about 10 years with this look - go figure.

  5. Well, I did get a friend to more or less take over the essential duties of the LAMB, so that helped immensely. The movie/blog life has been affected, but not all in bad ways. With a baby who needs feeding on a regular schedule, that leaves a lot of hurry-up-and-wait time in between, of which I spend most doing what I'm doing right now (i.e. being on the laptop).

    I was a bit surprised (and disappointed, to be honest) with the new changes, if only because it seemed like the last design suited (what I know of) your personality pretty well, while now it's much more generic. But I'm sure you have something up your sleeve.

    Hoping all is well with you and your bride as well. And if you blog more, all the better. :D

  6. Dang, my wife said the same thing about the redesign...I do have something a little cleaner in mind for the header. I don't know, maybe all the same stuff will come back in a different form!

    Cheers - D

  7. Great minds think alike (meaning your wife and I, of course). ;)


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