Winnebago Man opens on an argument. Sort of. The titular subject, Jack Rebney, faces the camera. “I’m 78 fucking years old. Why should I put up with this shit?”, he rages. “It will make no difference whatsoever, ‘cause the only thing it will ultimately come to is that, well, this guy’s been a fucking crazy all his life.” Speaking from off-screen, filmmaker Ben Steinbauer responds, as a lower volume, “That’s not true.” Their voices begin to overlap, Ben steps into frame, and Jack refuses to budge. He won’t talk about himself, he says: “If you don’t like it, pack up and get the fuck out.”
For anyone who’s seen Rebney’s previous incarnation, as the “Winnebago Man,” this is pretty much what you’re expecting. That performance, a set of outtakes shot during the production of 1989 industrial films promoting Winnebago, went viral before the term existed, first on countless degenerating VHS copies, and then, some 20 years later, on YouTube. Like thousands of other fans, Steinbauer says, he was mesmerized by Jack’s ranting. This “angriest man in the world” spoke to so many sorts of frustrations, the pain of days gone wrong and expectations not met, of living in a world where everyone else is stupider than you. Jack Rebney’s meltdown is legendary, his fury monumental. And his fans, apparently, are legion.
At least they’re appreciative, according the sample assembled for Steinbauer’s film. American Detective Dan Brown enthuses, “I don’t remember the first time I saw it. I’ve seen it like 100 times, so it all blurs together.” Steinbauer and his camera operator appear in a mirror behind Brown, a seeming mini-transition to the point made by Alain Berliner (the Alain Berliner): “These commercials are meant to be these picture perfect pristine things,” he says, “It’s our chance to look behind the curtain.” Mark Miks, who directed Rollergirls, concurs, “It’s a real moment, you know, like what you see on this tape is probably the worst day in this guy’s life.”
The real, it appears, is the spontaneous, off-script and unexpected, like the money shot in a porn film. But what if the real is not only performed for a camera but also replicated and disseminated? Jack’s clip circulates, fans consume, quote, and interpret him, they assert what he means to them. Such existential-ish observations get at a potential central question in Winnebago Man: is the Winnebago Man real? Or better, is there a way to know if he’s real? Or maybe better in another way, does it matter if he’s real?
Winnebago Man doesn’t answer these questions. They do seem worthy, as permutations of a concern with the effects of repetition, ephemera, and technologies of distribution and exchange, of the ways reality is constructed and valued (the film includes several instances of Jack homages, by Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, and other YouTube users). The questions are recast in Steinbauer’s effort to find the real Jack. Or maybe the “real” Jack. Taking a cue from one Jack fan, Found Footage Festival co-founder Nick Prueher (“Jack Rebney would be the holy grail of stars to meet from these videos we obsessed over for years”), he hires a private investigator, sends queries to a number of P.O. boxes, and winds up “on top of a mountain in northern California,” where Jack now lives.
Apparently immediately, Jack agrees to perform his new self, as “a caretaker here at Rock Creek Lake,” a fishing resort. He’s deliberately removed himself from the media hubbub he endured as a local newsman and occasional pitch person. “What are you,” asks Steinbauer, “A hermit?” Jack nods, serenely, “Yes, I guess I am a hermit.” Now Steinbauer is frustrated: “Jack is so calm, I almost can’t believe it. I thought there’d be at least a little swearing.” And now you might be pondering a few additional questions. How do expectations shape reality, and how do experiences (say, watching a video 100 times) shape expectations?
In fact, or in the film anyway, the relationship between Jack and Steinbauer is increasingly complicated, as Jack both does and doesn’t conform to expectations. His anger seems real, and sustained. But his performance of it is uneven, and that needs negotiation and framing, voiced by Steinbauer, whose part (as a stand-in fan) in the creation and recreation of the angriest Man on Earth is increasingly clear.
Jack and Steinbauer appear to agree to use one another: one wants to complete his film and the other wants to speak out, to be heard. “I have a way with words,” Jack contends. “I want to use that to effectuate some understanding of what I see as a tragedy taking place in the United States.”
That is, according to Jack, the failure of media to be honest, to be real, to intervene in “how brainlessly fucking stupid the mass of people in this country.” Winnebago Man affords Jack the chance to intervene, in his way. But the film is less about Jack, his reputation and performance, than it is about itself. Real or not.