Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Prior to viewing the documentary Winnebago Man, I had never heard of the Winnebago Man. Somehow this pop culture phenomenon had slipped under my radar. But as the story unfolded, there were elements of the tale that had a ring of familiarity to it. The Winnebago Man, also known as "The Angriest Man in the World", is Jack Rebney, a pitchman who shot an industrial promotional film for Winnebago in 1989. During the shoot, his inability to remember his own dialogue resulted in a series of outbursts colored with so much cursing, the editors of the film cut the outtakes together and passed around VHS copies of Rebney's meltdown to share the hilarity. During the 90's, long before there was a youtube, the Winnebago Man became a viral video courtesy of fans copying the video on VHS and giving it to friends who made even more copies. When youtube.com opened in 2005, the Winnebago Man became an internet sensation.
But what had become of the real Jack Rebney? That is the question the director of Winnebago Man, Ben Steinbauer, is intent on answering. At first, it seems as though he has completely fallen off the map. The only clue to the whereabouts of Rebney is an an advertisement he placed the purchase a sailboat. Is Jack deliberately trying to avoid being found? Steinbauer explores the 21st century phenomenon of cyber-bullying, how the subjects of viral videos are often the targets of intentional humiliation. His own feelings toward Rebney are sympathetic; often he has felt similar frustrations on film shoots and at the end of the day would pop in a copy of Rebney's ranting as a stress reliever. Many fans expressed similar identification. Was Jack aware of his popularity?
Ultimately, Steinbauer hires a private investigator to track Rebney down. After a few weeks, his search is successful as Rebney returns his call and leaves a message welcoming Steinbauer to visit him. Rebney lives by himself in a Shasta County mountain cabin in Manton, California. Steinbauer is surprised to find such a warm, articulate and relatively calm individual, saying that it's as though Rebney has spent the time since his days on the Winnebago shoot "doing yoga". While he claims he was notified of his notoriety on the internet by a friend, his general attitude toward it is described by Steinbauer as a "minor anecdote" in the grand scheme of Rebney's life. Rebney bids him farewell and Steinbauer returns home, disappointed and wondering if he has made too much of the whole Winnebago Man phenomenon.
But then a week later, Rebney calls him back. And he keeps calling him. Apparently, the sweet docile old man behavior was just an act. As he relates how he really feels about his notoriety, which he has been aware of since the collection of outtakes was passed around on VHS, the bitterness comes out with the same cursing cantakerousness we are familiar with from the viral video. It seems he has changed his mind about the impression he tried to convey when Steinbauer initially visited him. He is still upset, but now the primary focus of his anger is the political direction the country is heading toward and he wants to voice his opinions. He invites Steinbauer out for a second visit, but before that visit happens, Regney's glaucoma causes him to go blind.
Sound dramatic? Actually, this is one of the funniest documentaries I've ever seen. Even after his blindness, Regney is constantly cutting loose with the funniest foul-mouthed observations. From the interaction with his faithful dog and his best friend, to the way he drags out the word "Waaaal-Mart" as he rants in front of one in Redding, Regney is a constant source of laughter. What really surprised me is how the movie ended. I won't print a spoiler, but it was amazingly sweet and touching. If I have one critique of the movie, it's that I wish Steinbauer had quit trying to rein Regney in. If Regney wants to shoot a video where he castigates Dick Cheney for destroying the economy a full year and a half (March 2007) before the stock market actually collapsed (September 2008), then for f@#$% sake, let the man say whatever he g$%@#%* feels like! S#$%!