Review: Winnebago Man


Winnebago Man

Who is Jack Rebney?

After seeing Winnebago Man, I'm still not entirely sure. But in a way, not knowing Rebney may be a point of this documentary, which sheds barely a flicker of light on one of the Internet's most famous cult figures.

Rebney is better known as The World's Angriest Man, whose famously foul-mouthed rants during a 1989 taping of a Winnebago sales video have made him an Internet legend. In a collection of outtakes (compiled by the video crew without Rebney's knowledge), he leaves no F-bomb undropped and no Judeo-Christian deity unblasphemed, as he angrily curses at the heat, the flies, the crew and himself. Rebney's creative use of vulgar epithets borders on an art form, and his screw-this-job tirades have made him a hero to frustrated workers everywhere.

The outtakes began circulating via crudely copied VHS tapes in the early 1990s. When the Internet matured enough to allow trading videos and posting them on websites, Rebney's rantings quickly became a cyberspace sensation. And then came YouTube -- and the rest, as they say, is viral video history. But although Rebney had an Internet connection, apparently he had no clue about his unlikely fame.

Winnebago Man is really two films: one about Rebney and the other about the curious notion of being "Internet famous." The part about Rebney is part detective story and part character study. At the film's start, director Ben Steinbauer, long a fan of Rebney's video, hopes to find him and convince him to appear in the documentary. An Internet search reveals no information at all about the man's whereabouts; neither do calls to the Winnebago PR department or interviews with the video crew. Steinbauer hires a private detective, who gives him little more than a list of Rebney's P.O. boxes. (For reasons unknown, the elusive Rebney has taken great pains to cover his tracks for several decades.)

Steinbauer mails letters to the P.O. boxes, not really expecting a response. To his complete surprise, Rebney calls him and agrees to talk to him, although he doesn't understand why anyone cares about the video or wants to make a documentary about him.

Hoping Rebney will be everything his legions of fans expect, Steinbauer travels to Rebney's remote lake cabin in Northern California. (The location reeks of hermitage, which greatly enhances Rebney's angry mystique. He even owns a few guns.) But Rebney is hardly The World's Angriest Man. Serene, thoughtful and enjoying a quiet life alone in his seventies, he regards the video with little more than mild amusement. Rebney reveals little about himself during the interview. He also says nothing terribly revealing about his infamous, hot-headed performance, except that he and the crew were working under miserable conditions, which made everyone grumpy and triggered his temper. Disappointed, Steinbauer leaves without any documentary-worthy material.

Or so he thinks. Rebney calls Steinbauer several more times, finally admitting that he is indeed angry about the video and the notoriety he didn't seek. He feigned being calm, hoping to redeem his reputation by convincing the world that he isn't really The World's Angriest Man. But when he realized the documentary wasn't going to happen -- no one's interested in a kindly old man with little to say -- he decided to fess up and tell Steinbauer, and the world, exactly what everyone wants to hear.

He really doesn't, however, which may leave audiences disappointed. The rest of the film reveals not much more about Rebney, except a few details about his career and glimpses into his not terribly angry personality and worldview. Yes, he's a grumpy, combative, government-hating malcontent, but aren't we all sometimes? He's also a gentle soul who dotes on his dog and admits he doesn't entirely mind all the attention. He still cusses a lot, but he's downright warm and gracious when meeting adoring fans at the Found Footage Festival in San Francisco.

Then again, Rebney may be more media savvy than he lets on. (This wouldn't be surprising; he had a long career as TV news producer.) He confounds Steinbauer by promising to cooperate and then flatly refusing to answer some questions, barely hinting at the truth when answering others, and being amazingly candid at other times. But by being unpredictable, could he merely be toying with us to enhance his mysterious folk-hero legend? Rebney may be well aware that the last thing a folk hero needs is for people to know too much about him. God forbid everyone should realize that when the mythology is stripped away, he's pretty much like everyone else.

The other side of Winnebago Man is a commentary on the meaning of fame in the digital age. The Internet has greatly democratized the sharing of information, thus leveling the playing field (or maybe lowering the bar) when it comes to being famous. In a nutshell, literally anyone (at least anyone in the Internet-connected world) can be famous now, often for no apparent reason. But on this subject, Winnebago Man reveals no more than it does about Rebney. It barely scratches the surface of the viral video phenomenon.

A brief interview with Aleksey Vayner, a Yale student who starred in a painfully awkward (and much parodied) video of job-hunting tips, tells us only that Vayner is resigned to living with his infamy. The same is true for an interview with digital media and popular culture expert Douglas Rushkoff, who coined the term "viral video." Rushkoff probably said many interesting things during his interview, but says nothing we don't already know in his scant minute or so of screen time. Other comments from viral video fans and collectors are not much more insightful, although one collector does ask an interesting question: If the stars of viral videos have their 15 minutes of fame for very superficial reasons, do we really need to know anything more about them?

Indeed. Do we? It's tempting to dismiss Winnebago Man because it doesn't answer this question or delve into what current notions of fame say about our society. But despite its shortcomings, I did find it watchable, if not profound. It's a funny and sometimes poignant glimpse of Rebney, a man who may know better than to tell us everything he knows about our new media culture.

Austin connections: Steinbauer lives in Austin, where he owns a media production company and has taught film courses at the University of Texas. Producer Joel Heller is also from Austin. Two of the interviewees in Winnebago Man, Charlie Sotelo and Cinco Barnes, live here and were the hosts of The Show with No Name, a long-running Austin cable access show. (Sotelo also worked on some of those SXSW Burger Hut bumpers.) The documentary had its world premiere in Austin during SXSW 2009.

I gasped with delight when I

I gasped with delight when I saw this existed. I remember seeing the original clip aired (and then re-aired, and re-aired, and re-aired) on TSwNN. It's downright mystical. I very much look forward to seeing this. Preferably late on a Sunday night.