As old media and new media mingle and morph, as the Internet invades every corner of our lives and as reality TV piques our basest collective curiosity, films like “Winnebago Man” inevitably find their way out of the underground shadows and into the mainstream.
What started as a quirky cult novelty in 1988 – as outtakes from a Winnebago promotional video in nuclear meltdown circulated on VHS tapes and eventually went viral on the Internet via YouTube – became the inspiration for filmmaker Ben Steinbauer to noodle around in search of the man who set the whole thing off.
That would be the dapper, middle-aged RV salesman Jack Rebney, who on a steamy, fly-flecked Iowa day in 1988 set out to film a Winnebago infomercial and, in outtakes between a series of foul-ups and flubbed lines, let fly with florid outbursts of anger, abuse and profanity that amount to minor blue masterpieces of inventive invective.
Bootleg clips of Rebney’s rants – apparently circulated by crew members he berated – eventually turned him without his knowledge into an Internet sensation, an underground celebrity dubbed “The Angriest Man in the World,” even though the man himself seemed blithely unaware of his dubious fame as he eventually retired to a remote mountaintop caretaker job in northern California.
And there, his hermit-like existence all these years later is interrupted by the curious Steinbauer, a film instructor at the University of Texas, Austin, who decided upon viewing the YouTube hit to track down Rebney and see how his questionable fame has affected his life.
Much of the documentary (with sharp camera work by former Oklahoma City filmmaker Bradley Beesley) charts Steinbauer’s initially frustrated quest, with private eyes coming up empty and dead ends leading to doubts that the elusive Rebney even exits. But eventually the two men meet, and that’s when “Winnebago Man” becomes most interesting and insightful.
At first, Rebney, 76, comes off as a charming, curmudgeonly hermit with failing eyesight who is only vaguely aware of his celebrity and doesn’t give a hoot. But as the persistent, media-savvy Steinbauer coaxes and prods his subject to open up, we gradually begin to see the more complex dimensions of Rebney and come to the realization that he hasn’t mellowed at all.
He’s still prone to angry outbursts. He’s still misanthropic and scornful of his fellow man. He speaks with old-world formality (peppered with plenty of f-bombs) and considers himself a dedicated Luddite at odds with the trivialities of pop culture and modern politics.
Through several quizzical and occasionally abusive sessions with Rebney, Steinbauer gradually manages to ferret out some surprising dimensions to the man’s character (he was once a TV newsman and a soft touch for friends in need). And the film takes a decidedly poignant turn as the young filmmaker and the old coot travel to a “found footage” film festival in San Francisco where Rebney surprisingly finds himself connecting with youthful pop-culture fans who love his vinegary outbursts and identify strongly with his articulate anger.
“Winnebago Man” travels a long and rambling road to find its thematic point (something about the power of online culture to illuminate as well as humiliate, perhaps? To examine as well as exploit, maybe?). But whatever the film’s point, it’s a hoot to hang out with such an irascible, opinionated, cunning individual as Jack Rebney and to watch how he slyly turns unintended and unwanted media fame to his own advantage.
- Dennis King
(Strong pervasive language)