The new documentary Winnebago Man (2 screens) may seem like a lightweight entertainment, based on an accidental viral video phenomenon, but in a way it has more potential than many heavier documentaries. Any documentary about a single, living subject has the best advantage. First, you have the actual person to interview for the camera, rather than his friends and family, or "experts" on his life. Secondly, you have an entire film to devote to this one person, rather than dividing up the running time among many participants in a story. The greatest documentary ever made, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, managed to plumb the depths of its subject's soul for an astonishingly "complete" portrait, all in just under two hours. Of course, Crumb interviewed some other family members, but they only served to underline and compliment the big picture.
It also helps when the filmmaker has a personality that compliments that of the subject. Another great example is Errol Morris' The Fog of War, which spent 95 minutes grilling former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara about Vietnam; the purpose of this film was not to solve anything, but to establish that even a direct question-and-answer period with one knowledgeable person does not come close to solving the problem of war. Morris' used his unique interviewing and camera techniques to emphasize the slippery, elusive nature of the subject.
Agnes Varda made two great documentaries more or less about herself, The Gleaners & I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnes (2009), but both with a certain direction and theme, rather than just straightforward biography. And Chris Smith's American Movie (1999) painted a moving portrait of a hapless horror filmmaker named Mark Borchardt. Werner Herzog never met his subject Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man (2005), but makes a powerful connection anyway. (Treadwell may not quite count as a "living" subject, but he's on camera throughout, and he's a "single" subject.) I think we can even stretch the rules a bit if the movie applies to two subjects, as in Steve James' Hoop Dreams (1994) and Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007).
Documentary fans will notice that Winnebago Man follows a similar arc to the recent Best Worst Movie (1 screen), in that it follows some oddball characters that have become famous for the wrong reasons. True to form, though Best Worst Movie had one interesting character in dentist George Hardy, it was obligated to spend some time with the rest of the cast and crew of Troll 2. But Winnebago Man gets a luxurious 85 minutes on Jack Rebney, and nothing but Jack Rebney. Director Ben Steinbauer devotes part of the movie to explaining Jack's fame, showing the outtakes of Jack making an industrial film about Winnebago. These clips, filled with Jack's unique and funny swears, made the rounds of VHS collectors in the 1980s and 1990s, and then became a YouTube phenomenon. (Our own Scott Weinberg included the YouTube clip in his review.)
Then Steinbauer must actually find the elusive Jack, who has become a hermit in the mountains of Northern California. Jack spends a bit of time performing for the camera, and only at about the halfway point do we get the real Jack. The film winds up with Rebney attending the Found Footage Film Festival in San Francisco, and softening up in the presence of a theater full of adoring fans. Though this ending is sweet, it's not very satisfying. It feels like a reality show stunt, taking the subject out of his element. Likewise Steinbauer never seems to connect with Rebney. They have some onscreen fights and some banter, but the sense of a genuine connection is a bit elusive; it's perhaps an attempt to make the film funny, rather than profound.
Something similar happened when director James Toback made a documentary about his friend Mike Tyson; the result, Tyson (2009), came across as an effort to defend and protect rather than explore. It's not easy to pull off. The single-living-subject documentary may be the most promising, but more often than not, filmmakers fail to fulfill its awesome potential. I enjoyed Winnebago Man, but I knew it could have been more.