Beyond the notoriety
By Rachel Saslow
Friday, July 30, 2010
YouTube viewers may remember Jack Rebney as either "Winnebago man," "RV guy" or "the angriest man in the world." Rebney shot a commercial for Winnebago in 1989 and a video of his foul-mouthed outtakes took off online in 2005. In the entertaining and thoughtful documentary "Winnebago Man," filmmaker Ben Steinbauer seeks out Rebney and, along the way, raises intriguing questions about our culture of online humiliation and the real-life destruction it can leave in its wake.
By the time most Americans saw the "Winnebago man" video on YouTube, it had already been circulating underground for more than 15 years on VHS tapes. After the commercial's crew posted the footage online, it turned into a full-on meme and people, including Alec Baldwin on an episode of "30 Rock," started quoting Rebney. Not one of his catchphrases can be printed here.
Steinbauer, a soft-spoken film professor at the University of Texas at Austin, started to wonder about this mustachioed man with the salty language. How was he handling his new notoriety? It's a valid question that most of us don't ask (or let ourselves ask) as we gawk at the freak of the week being forwarded around the office.
"I have no interest at all in getting to the person," says a Rebney fan, speaking broadly about Internet culture. "I don't want the reality. I want to see the buffoon on stage performing for me."
Steinbauer has to hire a private investigator to track down Rebney. He finds the 78-year-old living alone in a cabin on a mountaintop in Northern California. During the first interview, Rebney doesn't really curse, and he talks about the joy of breathing clean mountain air. He appears bemused by his YouTube fame. Steinbauer leaves puzzled.
Shortly after the trip, Rebney calls Steinbauer and tells him that he was acting like Mary Poppins during the interview and he's welcome to come back to see the real him. Rebney is a tempest: angry at Dick Cheney, at going blind (he has lost his sight to glaucoma) and, eventually, at Steinbauer for asking him questions about his childhood and marriage.
Rebney's boundaries make it impossible for Steinbauer to unearth the cause of the Winnebago man's rage. He is still that screaming loon at the RV, but the film also reveals him to be a sweet man (for example, when interacting with his dog Buddha) and a political extremist. "Winnebago Man" lets Rebney reclaim his reputation -- a rare opportunity for "here today, gone tomorrow" Internet celebrities.
Contains a ton of swearing.