The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Winnebago Man was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
In 1989, Jack Rebney was a corporate filmmaker, producing and hosting industrial films about Winnebago RVs. During one particularly long and frustrating two-week shoot in a miserably hot summer, Rebney had a prolonged meltdown that resulted in some of the most excessive and creative uses of profanity ever caught on camera. A member of Rebney’s crew edited together these tirades as a collection of outtakes that quickly became an underground video sensation. When the Internet and YouTube came along, the footage quickly found its way online and Rebney became an Internet sensation, one of the first viral video superstars of the new medium. In the entertaining documentary Winnebago Man, director Ben Steinbauer puzzles over just who this “Angriest Man in the World” really is and what has become of him.
After much fruitless searching on his own, Steinbauer finally turns to a private investigator to track down Rebney. Steinbauer discovers the man living as a semi-hermit who is painfully aware of his celebrity. As Steinbauer gets to know Rebney, he discovers a layered, principled man who just happens to wield four-letter words like a deadly weapon. When Steinbauer tries to lure Rebney back into the mainstream and share his thoughts on the current world — his views on what should be done to the entire Bush administration are particularly entertaining — the man balks, and thus begins the meat of the story. While Rebney claims to be sickened by the Internet and his “fans,” he also never seems reluctant to take the spotlight on camera. He tries to pull off being both a ham and a recluse, but his real feelings are fairly obvious, and he subtly tries to use Steinbauer and his documentary to get his rants out into the world. At the same time, Steinbauer’s claims — that he just wants Rebney to return to the world and show everyone that there is more to him than just a grumpy old man throwing a temper tantrum — are suspect. While he may have some good intentions, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he’s trying to exploit Rebney’s fame among a certain demographic to insure success for his film. Watching the two of them try to use the other while pretending they’re not makes for some of the more intriguing and humorous scenes in the film.
While the thrust of the film follows Rebney’s halting steps back into the world to meet his fans, Steinbauer finds time to explore his subject’s background. In many ways, these moments frame the story of Jack Rebney as a tragedy. A former TV news producer in Chicago and New York, it’s easy to understand the bitterness and frustration he had to feel when he was reduced to working on that Winnebago shoot. The fact that his meltdown became the stuff of legend just rubbed salt into the wound and drove an opinionated, difficult man to living in a cabin in Northern California.
Also fascinating, but frustratingly unexplored by Steinbauer, is the relationship between Rebney and his best friend, Keith Gordon. To say Gordon is an odd duck would be understating matters. He mugs for the camera, uses goofy terms of endearment for Rebney, and then turns the film on its ear with his story about being rescued from homelessness when Rebney took him in as a young man. This casual revelation should have shone a whole new light on Rebney, but Steinbauer largely ignores the possibilities. He mainly uses Gordon to show how Rebney is just as grumpy and sharp-tongued with people he likes as he is with people who annoy him.
If there is a real weakness that could have ruined the film, it’s that when it’s over, I didn’t feel that I completely knew who Jack Rebney was. He remains entertaining and interesting throughout, but Steinbauer never manages to view him as anything more than an enigma. Still, the film works as the triumphant story of a complex man who manages to reclaim his dignity from online humiliation. Few YouTube stars are so lucky.
Read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.