Film Review: Winnebago Man

You'd think Angry Winnebago Man, Jack Rebney, was Garbo herself, the way one callow filmmaker and legions of YouTube watchers carry on about this basically decent, very serious loner of a man, who inadvertently become a viral video star.

The Internet has given birth to a number of unlikely superstars: the "Numa Numa" seated dancing boy; that kid who covered a Lady Gaga song and wound up being signed up by her; the Star Wars self-dueling fan whose family ended up winning a lawsuit for invasion of privacy and harassment. But few have really captured the public's imagination as much as Jack Rebney, whose infuriated, obscenity-laced ranting outtakes while filming a Winnebago commercial went internationally viral. He instantly became known as the Winnebago Man, the RV Guy and the Angriest Man in the Universe.

Filmmaker Ben Steinbauer made it his quest to seek out Rebney's whereabouts and discover how this notoriety affected him. With the aid of a private detective, he finds Rebney living a reclusive life in the mountains of Northern California, with his dog, ironically named Buddha. A courtly, meditative Rebney surprises Steinbauer—and us—by being anything but the hair-trigger, foul-mouthed jerk he appears to be on film. It is only later, in a telephone conversation, that Rebney admits it was all an act to subvert his infamous public image.

In Winnebago Man, Steinbauer decides to capture the real Rebney—still cantankerous and difficult as hell, but with reason. This proves easier said than done, for Rebney resists being conventionally interviewed, along with other of Steinbauer's notions, and continually threatens to walk off the project. He loathes the Internet and what he sees as the basic stupidity of Americans, but his greatest hatred is saved for Dick Cheney, whom he quite reasonably claims has ruined this country.

Steinbauer arranges for Rebney to make an appearance, although he has been devastatingly blinded by glaucoma, at the Found Footage Festival in San Francisco. The filmmaker and an accompanying friend of Rebney’s are filled with trepidation about the man's reaction to the geeky adulation he will doubtlessly receive, but the evening turns out to be something of a triumph.

I have to admit my total ignorance of Rebney on YouTube—I like to think of myself as having something of a life—and did not find Rebney's footage to be particularly compelling or extraordinary. Okay, he swore a lot and certainly seemed to be mad about something, but how desperate to be entertained are people out there, who turn his "My mind is just a piece of shit this morning!" or "Will ya do me a kindness?" into catchphrases, and, indeed, quote them in films like Surviving Christmas and TV's “30 Rock”? The San Francisco audience members—universally white, it seems—are interviewed, and to a man they seem enthralled at the prospect of seeing such an icon of angriness, many of them fervently hoping that he'll swear at them. They are eventually won over by his utter naturalism and gallant refusal to be patronized thusly, although one says he got a little too political (with a single onscreen mention of Cheney).

This audience reaction points up certain objections I have with the film. Although Steinbauer makes some sanctimonious comments about how Rebney's compelling display of ire speaks to the common man in all of us, etc., a certain bratty tone is inescapable. YouTube, like all those “America's Funniest Videos” shows, has turned the entire world into one big, often nasty high school, with so much sniggering over people's most embarrassing and/or appalling moments. In Rebney's case, the outtakes were leaked in an effort to discredit him and he indeed lost his job. Funny like a crutch.

Steinbauer expresses bewilderment at Rebney's decision to live life in the wild as a hermit, but after something like this, along with a career spent in the jungle of commercial television, it seems not at all unreasonable. And I can't help but feel that there must have been at least one person in that audience who didn't feel a little remorse at seeing this blind old man being brought out for everyone's cynical, two-a-penny enjoyment. Internet-wise, the Facebook type of bullying which goes on now is clearly a form of cowardice, but so too is the fascination with laughing at other human beings' expressions of pure emotion, be it a private fantasy of a movie-fed epiphany or, in Rebney's case, frustrated rage. You want to say "Get a life, and feel something yourself!" to all those pallid souls, sitting in snarky judgment in the dark before their flickering little screens.