Sunday, September 27, 2009

EIFF: Day Two

I may never understand the pitfalls of celebrity. Save for one unfortunate brush with small-town fame—when I was eight years old I won a giant four-foot tall stuffed rabbit from a grocery store, which resulted in my picture running in the local paper—I've managed to remain thankfully obscured from the public eye. Granted, should I ever become a Pynchonesque media-shy author, this grainy, faded picture of my young moppet self squeezing a giant bunny might come back to haunt me, but I remain hopeful that this image has buried by history, just as the rabbit itself has long since been lost.

In fact, I've even managed to achieve a certain anonymity in my everyday life. Co-workers have mistakenly confused me with the following people: Robert, Bryan, Ryan, and Hey You. Best of all, a woman who had worked with me for months inexplicably took to calling me Mark for almost three weeks—a mistake I encouraged, as it allowed me to hide from her dithering ineptitude. "Where's Mark?" she would ask, only to receive a chorus of confused shrugs, finally wandering off, her dazed, wide-eyed look resembling nothing so much as a deer caught in a world of headlights. I was rather disappointed when my supervisor finally corrected her. How liberating it was to be a Mark and throw off all the baggage of my old name, even if only for a few weeks.

There's a point to all of this, I assure you. Some fortuitous scheduling at the festival allowed me to take in two complimentary documentaries that deal with the perils of unwanted celebrity, and both films feature people confronting past embarrassments. In Best Worst Movie, this fame comes from the shame of appearing in Troll 2, which was once listed as the worst movie ever on IMDB (it has since relinquished the crown to Pocket Ninjas). In Winnebago Man, it is the questionable notoriety of a viral video phenom. But in both cases, people find their pasts coming back not just to haunt them, but to drag them into the spotlight. And oh, how that brightness burns...

Winnebago Man

Nearly twenty years ago, a video of outtakes from a shoot for a Winnebago promotional film began circling among people who trade these sort of underground tapes. The appeal of the "Winnebago Man" video, as it was called, lied in the foul-mouthed star of the film, who flubbed lines, cussed out the intern, and said baffling things like, "I want no more bullshit from anyone—and that includes me." It was viral video before the concept even existed.

Of course, when YouTube took off, the tape was uploaded and found an even larger audience. For most people, it was just a cathartic bit of fun—look at this guy having a terrible day and simply letting that vitriol fly. But documentary director Ben Steinbauer was obsessed with discovering the man behind the video, and began a search for the "Winnebago Man" that would result in this film.

The man in the video is named Jack Rebney, and it turns out the tape was created by the disgruntled crew in order to get him fired. Their plan worked, and Rebney seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth while the tape began its second life in underground tape-trading circles before graduating to the dubious distinction of an Internet video phenomenon.

Now 76 years old, the man lives alone in a secluded cabin on a mountain in California with only his dog Buddha for company. At first, he seems polite and modest, disinterested in the documentary but amiable nonetheless. But as he warms to Steinbauer (and perhaps realizes the documentary offers a chance to redeem himself after his Internet humiliation), Rebney begins to drop his guard and reveal the full force of his opinions and personality on film.

It's bracing, to say the least. He's very much the definition of a crotchety old man, but also absolutely charming despite (or perhaps because of) his obvious crustiness. He's rightly wary of the new fame Steinbauer wants to bring to him—this is a man whose fame rests on a tape specifically designed to humiliate him, remember. But he's also possessed by a restless, talkative demeanor, and he can't help but pour out a torrent of words the instant he's prodded. There are times when you want to roll your eyes—he's working on a book called "Jousting With the Myth," which is apparently a "heretical analysis" of politics, sex, and religion, whatever that means—but the man is also sharp-witted and quite endearing. As one fan in the film notes, "He's everyone's angry grandpa."

In fact, one of the highlights of the festival so far had to be the post-screening q-and-a with Steinbauer and co-writer/producer Malcolm Pullinger. In response to one question from the audience about Rebney's book, Steinbauer offered to call the man himself. Speaking through a cellphone, Rebney regaled the audience with his own mix of eloquent charm and cussedness. Steinbauer barely had to say anything and the man was off and running—praising Canada, thanking us for our generosity, complimenting his director, describing his swearing as "Anglo-Saxonese," making jokes about lutefisk, and just generally saying whatever occurred to him.

It was funny and ridiculous, but it also makes clear why this simple film is so engaging. Steinbauer never really quite deciphers the mysteries of viral video or Internet fame; quite naturally, the film evolves into a character portrait of Rebney himself, and Steinbauer contents himself to get lost in the strange and fascinating personality of this sweetly embittered old man. By the end, Rebney finds his redemption as a man willing to speak his mind, letting loose with anger, gratitude, or simply whatever curious thought happens to be drifting by at the moment. We should all be so uninhibited.

Best Worst Movie

I suppose there are worse fates than having a picture of your chubby-cheeked cherubic little self squeezing a plush rabbit printed in a small-town newspaper. For instance, as a child you could be cast in a film called Troll 2, only to realize your hope of becoming an actor has been forever destroyed because you just appeared in what will come to be known as the worst movie ever.

That's the fate of Michael Stephenson, who starred in the famously awful Troll 2 and also directed this film, Best Worst Movie, chronicling the growing cult legend of that legendary bit of crap cinema. After years of running from that dire credit (one of his costars who has continued with acting admits she never puts the film on her resume), Stephenson has decided to embrace it with this film, and turn that liability into a bit of camp celebrity.

He rounds up the bulk of the cast, although the film mostly focuses on George Hardy, a gregarious small-town dentist who also once harbored dreams of acting, only to have them dashed by Troll 2. The film follows the reunited cast as they attend enthusiastic fan screenings, re-enacting scenes from the movie to giddy applause and hysterical laughter. As the film enters its second life as a cult object, the cast—Hardy and Stephenson in particular—struggle to turn this embarrassment into something redemptive, like a second shot at fame.

Best Worst Movie has its charms, but I found myself liking it less than I thought I would. Of course, there's a fair bit of humour to be found in excerpts from the brilliantly awful Troll 2, just as there's some enjoyment in seeing the grown actors replay the most bizarre scenes or reminisce about the difficult, confused shoot (the crew was Italian, and the ensuing language barrier meant the cast had only the frantic hand gestures of the director to explain what was required of them).

At the same time, there are some more ambivalent strains in Stephenson's film that he seems unable or unwilling to address. There is the disturbed Margo Prey, female lead in the film and a clearly troubled, lonely woman whose life seems a shambles. There's the self-deluding Claudio Fragasso, volatile Italian director of Troll 2, who defends the worth of the film while twisting himself into knots rationalizing the mocking adoration of his film (at one point we see his patience finally break as he berates the cast for making fun of the film, calling them "dog actors").

Finally, there is George Hardy himself, who—while clearly charismatic and goodhearted—is something of a narcissist finding his ego fed by this dubious celebrity. It's simultaneously funny and painful to watch him foist his awful movie appearance on clients at his dental clinic, and there are points where you can't quite tell if Stephenson is simply mocking this poor guy. It brings to mind a point in Winnebago Man where Steinbauer muses over the wisdom of putting Rebney in front of a camera again, especially if it only provides new humiliation for the man.

Stephenson, who seems to be a less nuanced director than Steinbauer, doesn't even really pause to consider this possibility. For that matter, he might be too complicit in this story to really pick apart the Troll 2 experience with any real insight beyond his own bemusement. I was amused for a while, but the film itself never really becomes genuinely compelling. And by the end, it becomes clear Stephenson intends his film to serve as a sweet conclusion to a bitter memory, which unfortunately requires the film to gloss over its more contrary elements.

However, I should note that I've never seen Troll 2, so I don't really fit into the group of devotees who would most likely lap up a film like this (myself, I'm holding out for a Gymkata revival). For those of us outside of the cult, Best Worst Movie is at most a minor pleasure and mild curiosity, and little more.

But there are still valuable lessons to be learned here. Like this: there is no sense in running from notoriety. Hiding from your past doesn't necessarily stop it from finding you. Embrace it; only when it is close can you get your hands around its throat. Also, Italian directors are crazy. And according to Jack Rebney, Karl Rove deserves to have a hot poker stuck up his ass. Amen.

Now, I believe there is a four-foot-tall plush rabbit I need to find, lest I be on my deathbed calling out in a weathered croak, "Foo-foo Bunny," and then dropping my cherished snow globe.

Keep on truckin',

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