Film

'Winnebago Man': A Way With Words

Winnebago Man asks, 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

Director: Ben Steinbauer
Cast: Jack Rebney, Ben Steinbauer, Keith Gordon, Nick Prueher, Joe Pickett, Alexsey Vayner
Rated: NR
Studio: Kino International
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-07-16 (Los Angeles)
Website
Trailer

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.

8

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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