Before there was Youtube, before there were Internet born viral video sensations, heck, before there was even the Internet to become a sensation on (at least in its present day form as a public forum for endless humiliation), there was Jack Rebney, aka the Winnebago Man, aka the Angriest Man in the World. The “star” of a perpetually bootlegged VHS tape that started making the rounds among found footage enthusiasts around 1989 and then throughout the ‘90s, Rebney became a cult icon for his increasingly harried, sputtering, profanity laden meltdowns on the set of an industrial training video for Winnebago motor homes. The crew for this film became so incensed with Rebney’s constant barrage of insults and f-bombs, that, to extract a little revenge, they collated all these outtakes together, made copies, and distributed them among friends, who in turn made copies and passed them around, and on and on (the very definition of viral).
Some 15 odd years later, with the rise of Youtube, the Winnebago Man clip found a new lease on life, and a whole new audience, becoming once again a viral sensation. It’s not hard to see why. A hypnotic five-minute tirade of salty language, instantly quotable non-sequiturs, and odd tics, Rebney starmaking moment is like the Platonic Idea of the strange sort of fame the Internet makes. Here’s a man obviously having one of the worst days of his life, caught in a Sisyphean hell of incompetence, stifling heat and plague like levels of flies. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to get a line right, even the ones he’s written.
Though his travails seem mostly self-inflicted, we sympathize with him anyway, his Job-like suffering over the minutiae of his work tapping in to something universal. The clip is cringe-inducing and hilarious in equal measure, and it’s hard not to have a smile on your face as it goes along.
This reaction seems to be the common strand among various interviewees waxing rhapsodic over the clip. It’s like the viral video equivalent of comfort food. One such fan is young fledgling filmmaker Ben Steinbauer, who decided to investigate the history of the tape and find out whatever happened to Rebney himself. Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, founders and curators of the Found Footage Festival (who revere Rebney above all others as their inspiration for their avocation for amateur home video footage), figure that Rebney must have died of a heart attack at some point, or simply been consumed by his sputtering rage. No one else has any details on his location—the crew from the original 1989 film, having exacted their revenge (too well – Rebney was fired by Winnebago soon after the emergence of the bootleg tape), lost all contact with him. Rebney appears to have vanished.
Steinbauer vows to find Rebney, if he is in fact still alive, to try to uncover the man behind the five-minutes of immortality, to see if he really is in fact the angriest man in the world, or just a misunderstood professional who was having an epically bad day. It’s no surprise that, since this documentary exists, Steinbauer finds him, living in a remote fishing resort in Northern California. A graying, wizened, but still lively Rebney has retired there to be the caretaker of the lake, living the life of a hermit, seemingly content and seemingly oblivious to his celebrity. During their initial meeting, Rebney is gracious and self-effacing, laughing away the tape and his fame/infamy. He claims to not have been all that affected by the tape or its popularity, and find it all amusing more than everything.
Well… that was disappointing. Seems Steinbauer doesn’t have much a film after all… Until a few weeks go by, and he receives a profanity laden tirade on his voicemail, from Rebney, retracting the entirety of his previous interview, and going on the attack, vilifying his tormentors and the continued life of the video on Youtube. To add to his woes, he is also starting to lose his sight, and is becoming increasingly helpless in this mountain hideout.
Steinbauer returns to find the Rebney we were expecting – cantankerous, combative, and swearing a mile a minute. All is right in the world. Except… well, now, again, what do we do with that? Is there a film here? Is there something here to fascinate, or are we to be disappointed to discover that the man behind the character in the video are synonymous?
Winnebago Man is a curious case. It’s an enjoyable watch, but basically only when Rebney is on screen (which fortunately, is most of the time). Undeniably charismatic, Rebney possesses exceptional captivating diction, some of it natural, some of it a result of his past in broadcast journalism (most of his career had been spent in various news broadcast jobs, and it shows). His voice is deep and stentorian, and his manner of talking is just that side of affected and inflected that it verges on pompous. In fact, his voice resembles no one’s so much as the late Don LaFontaine (you know, the guy who did voiceover’s for seemingly every single movie trailer from the ‘80s to the early-‘00s), and has just that same “Voice of God” type timber to it. (As a side note, Rebney at the present looks a bit like Hal Holbrook, but in the original video he bears an eerie resemblance to Terry O’Quinn).
Rebney also seems a bit cracked. Though not an out and out crackpot, he has spent a good portion of his monastic life pounding out an eccentric philosophical-theistic manifesto that sounds as obscurantist as it is rigorous. He also seems to have a hard on for Dick Cheney, and spends as much screen time as he possibly can working in diatribes against the former VP. Though not ungrateful for the attention, he also seems to resent Steinbauer for exposing him again to public ridicule. Yet, this doesn’t stop him from attending a screening by the Found Footage Festival in his honor, or graciously greeting fans, who are legion and very enthusiastic to meet their hero. It’s touching and puts a smile on your face – just like the original video.
Steinbauer suffers by comparison. He narrates the entire film, and invades every scene when given a chance, likening himself a new Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore. The problem is, though he has found a worthy, if obscure, subject for his film, and come up with some interesting questions, he has no idea how to bring it all together, and the overall film suffers some from a failure to have some sort of overarching thesis. There are hints at the beginning about being an investigation of Internet fame, and questions of public humiliation and voyeurism. But perhaps Pickett and Prueher are right – the appeal of the subjects of these viral videos is couched in their anonymity, the fact that they are strangers, and that in trying to humanize them (what Steinbauer is attempting), the videos lose some of their allure. Perhaps Rebney is best left encased in grainy amber from 1989, a sputtering, profane enigma having a nervous breakdown for all eternity.
The only special feature included with the DVD is the actual 25-minute finished instructional film. Which… huh?! It’s an amusing counterpoint to its more famous cousin of outtakes, but a) no one is going to watch it all the way through and b) without the inclusion of the entire outtake clip, it sort of just sits there, meaningless, without the context. Of course, the Winnebago Man itself is the context, and the outtake clip is readily available on the Internet, but that’s not that point, and really, it would only take up five-minutes of space.