Jack Rebney is a very angry man. At least he was a very angry man during the two sweltering August weeks 22 years ago when he tried to film a promotional video for Winnebago motor homes. Reading from his own script, Rebney repeatedly flubbed his lines, was tormented by flies, and otherwise botched take after take, taking out his frustration on his crew and himself. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his crew kept the camera rolling for his outbursts and edited together a short video of his explosions. The VHS tape, titled simply Winnebago Man, became an underground sensation, passed around like a bootleg Hendrix concert tape, before enjoying a second life on YouTube.
But what became of Rebney? Is he enjoying his viral-video fame, or cringing in horror at being known as The Angriest Man in the World? Answering these questions is the purported motivation behind the new documentary Winnebago Man, in which a young, earnest filmmaker named Ben Steinbauer goes in search of Rebney, long since retired from the Winnebago trade and living in near-seclusion in Northern California.
Initially, Steinbauer seems to want to explore the effects of unintentional YouTube celebrity, and to ask what happened to, say, the kid who filmed himself swashbuckling with his Star Wars light saber, or the guy who fell off a ladder dressed in full Kiss regalia. Like Winnebago Man, the popularity of these videos derives from the fact the humor is unintentional—in fact, the more seriously the subjects approach their undertakings, the harder we laugh at their mishaps. When people tag these videos “awesome,” the quote marks are implied—it is awesomely awful, and our enjoyment comes from a smug sense of superiority to the poor buffoons in the videos. Their performances are straight-faced; our appreciation is ironic.
According to the documentary, Star Wars kid checked into a psychiatric hospital as a result of his unwanted fame, but when Steinbauer tracks Rebney down, he claims to be unaware that he is an Internet celebrity. He gives the filmmaker a genial interview and sends him on his way, and the movie appears in danger of sputtering out. But then Rebney starts calling Steinbauer to rant about politics and his life philosophy. Then he insists that the film crew return for another interview.
This is where the documentary gets interesting, and risks losing its good faith with the audience. Rebney seems to have had an eventful life (he worked in television news before getting into the RV trade), but he’s also a bit of a crank. He clearly loves being in the spotlight, but he styles himself a modern-day Thoreau, pretending to eschew his celebrity while hamming for the camera the entire time. He lacks the self-awareness to see any potential condescension in Steinbauer’s interest. Rebney’s fans view him as a character, a grotesque, a freak. But Rebney believes Steinbauer cares about his ideas, a misapprehension the filmmaker feeds by suggesting they buy a video camera so Rebney can tape his political musings and post them on YouTube for his fans. It’s hard to tell if Steinbauer actually thinks this is a good idea, or if he is just desperate to give his film a third act. Either way, something feels bogus about his apparent belief that the same people who “LOL” at Rebney cursing at flies and stomping around care what he thinks about Dick Cheney.
Steinbauer seems deeply concerned that the audience understand he’s a nice guy and his motives are pure, and to this end arranges for Rebney to appear at a “found footage film festival” at an art-house theater in San Francisco. At the festival, young hipster types line up to see Rebney, expressing tongue-in-cheek admiration for the man and the video, which some claim to have watched hundreds of times. An audience Q&A after the screening goes reasonably well—Rebney is a natural-enough performer to understand the audience wants an Angry Old Man, and he complies by barking answers and ranting about Cheney. But it’s unclear what Steinbauer has actually done for the man, other than provide him with a few moments of minor real-life celebrity. (Rebney will appear at select screenings of the documentary.) The Winnebago pitchman turned mountain hermit’s life story is probably fascinating, and quite poignant, but Rebney seems uninterested in telling it. If he’s happy with his 15 minutes of Winnebago Man fame, perhaps we shouldn’t question Steinbauer’s motives too closely. At the same time, the film ultimately feels more cautionary tale than comeback story—and a strong reminder to make sure you keep track of any outtakes from your video ventures.