Tracking down an unintentional celebrity
“Winnebago Man” AKA “The Angriest Man Alive” is a tall upright man named Jack Rebney with a resonant voice, who unwittingly starred in a 1988 outtakes video that was passed around on videotapes and then went viral on YouTube. Which made him, in that way, mega-famous (as well as beloved) for his endless rants during the shooting of an industrial film promoting recreational vehicles. A man having a meltdown, he also expresses everyman’s rage at things that aren’t going our way. And he does it with eloquence.
In this documentary first-timer Ben Steinbauer tracks down this “star” to find out who he is and what has become of him. The result is strange and cathartic in more ways than one.
People have a dubious taste for seeing others made a fool of, exploited in modern times in shows from Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera,” started in 1948, to Asthton Kutcher’s “Punk’d” and “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes.” The raw and anonymous form of such exploitation is “found footage,” amateur films of people doing stunts that fail, or of freak accidents. This is not a good way to become famous. Steinbauer opens his film by citing some who deal in found footage saying they don’t want to know who the people in these videos are. It’s easier to laugh at a man whose trick jump resulted in a broken back if you don’t know the followup. How insensitive is that? Does it even make any kind of human sense? Isn’t schadenfreude, delight in the woes of others, sweeter when you know who they are? Anyway, the cruelty of the practical joker can have bad consequences that the Internet “viral” phenomenon magnifies. A teenage boy, somewhat overweight, became an object of fame and ridicule when a film of him wielding a golf ball retriever like a “light saber” was found, reedited in various forms with music and dubbed “Star Wars Kid” in YutTube videos, and went viral. The humiliation and shame the “kid” subsequently felt led him to a psychiatric hospital.
YouTube’s “Winnebago Man” consists of outtakes in which the man being filmed, Rebney, that is, bursts into expletives, complaining of the heat, the flies, the way his brain has turned to mush, and his inability to get his lines right even though he wrote them. Steinbauer shows how dialogue from the “Winnebago” video have been quoted in a number of films. So has the image of “Star Wars Kid” in action: “Kid’s” gauche routine has been referenced on a number of TV shows, including “South Park.” Another man made a video of advice about how to succeed as part of a job application package. His boastful, quirky filmed CV was found and broadcast, leading to great embarrassment. As he ruefully tells Steinbauer, this foolish display of ego may be what he’ll always be remembered for. Has Jack Rebney, the “Winnebago Man,” been a victim like these? See this film and find out.
Adopting the detached but chatty style of Ira Glass’s PBS series “This American Life,” Steinbauer narrates his film in the first person, initially as a saga of his search for a missing man — until that isn’t necessary because the man has been found and, though somewhat opaque, is more interesting than young Mr. Steinbauer, whose interactions with his subject are pretty clumsy at times. But his documentary succeeds because it has, for all intents and purposes, a warm and satisfying ending, and because his initially mysterious subject winds up coming vividly to life.
It takes a while to get there. Ben has no trouble filming the crew that made the Winnebago film and learning about its circumstances. It was shot in Winnebago’s Iowa headquarters in the summer when the average temperature was 100º and the humidity was 98% and the air was full of flies. Rebney’s testy mood, though understandable, annoyed some crew members, which is why they kept the outtakes. Nobody seems to know what’s become of him. Founders of the Found Footage Festival Nick Prueher and Geoff Haas tell Ben early on that Rebney would be the “holy grail” of found footage stars, but they’ve assumed a man of such irascibility must surely be dead of a heart attack by now.
Ben has to consult a private detective, who finds Jack Rebney is a man who’s kept a low profile for many years. No voter registration, no car listings, just a string of post office boxes. He writes to all of them, and one day to his astonishment, he gets a phone message from Jack Rebney himself. He lives like a hermit on top of a mountain in Northern California, but he’s willing to talk.
Rebney is obviously reclusive and somewhat strange but he also seems quite pleasant. He allows himself to be filmed talking about his present life and watches the “Winnebago Man” rants, laughs, and says the YouTube video doesn’t bother him. He just has no idea what the interest in it is. A little later that turns out to be untrue. Rebney stays in touch with Ben by phone, and admits that the YouTube videos infuriate him. Ben goes back to the mountain and films Jack some more. Now the interactions become painful. Ben thinks he has gotten close to Jack and can persuade him to do some ranting on film, against WalMart, for example: they’re chased away by a WalMart security guard. Rebney really doesn’t warm to Ben’s attempts.
Steinbauer gets more information about Rebney from his best friend, Keith Gordon, a commercial pilot he rescued when he was destitute and whom he talks to on the phone very day. Rebney had a distinguished career as a TV newscaster and executive, but he set it aside. He’s always wanted to influence people, Gordon says, but also always wanted to be left alone. Rebney is articulate and well read, has strong views on politics and the world and is writing a book and a screenplay. He recently said, post-film, that the man he’d most like to take a trip in a Winnebago with is David Hume.
Now, on the second visit, Jack, now nearly 80, has suddenly become blind from glaucoma, but Ben and Keith Gordon accompany him to San Francisco for the Found Footage Festival where, appearing publicly, he again shows a warm and upbeat side — without dropping the profanity — and is pleased to learn that his YouTube rants have made people happy, people who’re not dummkopfs as he’d feared but sharp and simpatico. Maybe in this case delight in the woe of another is mostly sympathetic understanding. And though gruff and angry, Jack Rebney knows how to laugh, and has a lot to say.
Though he balked at attending the Found Footage Festival, Rebney greatly enjoyed it, and he has since gone to events celebrating this documentary, including the New York premiere, where he met Michael Moore. “What’s so refreshing about Jack is that here’s a man that doesn’t really care what anybody thinks, because he’s going to speak his mind,” said Moore. “Every word out of his mouth is an honest word and it’s been a long time since we’ve lived in a place like that.”
DIRECTOR: BEN STEINBAUER
WRITERS: BEN STEINBAUER, MALCOLM PULLINGER
CAST: JACK REBNEY, BEN STEINBAUER, NICK PRUER
RUNTIME: 85 MIN