Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Winnebago Man

(2009) Directed by Ben Steinbauer; Starring: Jack Rebney, Ben Steinbauer;
Available formats: DVD and Hulu

Rating: ****

Schadenfreude, or taking pleasure from others’ misfortunes, has arguably been the underlying basis for the success of numerous viral internet videos. Witness the success of the "Star Wars Kid," "Star Wars Trumpet Solo," or the dubious popularity of America’s Funniest Home Videos, which feature an average schmoe falling into an embarrassing predicament. We love it when someone does something amazing, but we love it even more when someone screws up in a big way. The relative anonymity of the web has afforded us the luxury to watch people we don’t know, captured at their worst possible moment. Thanks to the advent of You Tube and other similar websites, something that might have been witnessed by a handful of people can now be shared with thousands or millions, turning the videos’ subjects into instant unwitting celebrities.  In the case of the Star Wars Kid, this unsolicited notoriety resulted in the subject’s personal shame and merciless derision from others.  In other instances, the subject of the video might go about his or her daily life, blissfully unaware of the phenomenon that has grown around their unfortunate blunder. The documentary Winnebago Man attempts to explore the unlikely celebrity created by one such video.

Winnebago Man’s video in question is a compilation of “found” outtakes from a 1989 Winnebago motor home promotional video, in which the befuddled spokesman, Jack Rebney, issues forth with an unprecedented string of profanity-laden outbursts as he repeatedly blows his lines and misses his cues. The original tape of outtakes from the promotional video was copied repeatedly over the years, and passed off from one person to another like a treasured heirloom in a secret society, gaining notice from found footage aficionados and the Hollywood elite. Eventually, the clip wound up on You Tube, graduating from an underground in-joke to a mainstream internet meme.

                 Jack Rebney in his natural element. Warning: Definitely NSFW!

There was something about this video that transcended the simple label of schadenfreude. We are not simply laughing at this intensely frustrated man, but there is something universal that we can all identify with, as if all of our failures, our pent up tensions and feelings of inadequacy were contained in this one glorious expression of the Id run rampant. There’s something compelling in the purity of his uncontained ire. We laugh because we’ve all been there at one point in our lives, even if we’ve never expressed ourselves with such conviction before. Based on Rebney’s protracted rant, some dubbed him the “angriest man in the world.”  How could he possibly live up to this expectation? Documentarian Ben Steinbauer sought to find out the true story of the man behind the video. What did Rebney think about all of his accidental fame? What was he doing now?  Was he still alive?

Initially, the trail is very thin, with only a few scant clues to lead to his current whereabouts. Steinbauer hired a private investigator to find Rebney, but the search yielded little, except for several PO Boxes listed under his name. After sending some inquiries to the PO Boxes, Steinbauer finally gets a bite, discovering that Rebney is alive and presumably well, and reluctantly willing to talk. The now 76-year-old Rebney is leading a reclusive existence in a trailer on a secluded Northern California mountaintop with his dog Buddha. In sharp contrast to his Winnebago video persona, he seems happy and serene in his solitary life  His initially calm personality turns out to be a bit of a ruse, as later on his other, more cantankerous self emerges, like a vulgar Wizard of Oz revealed behind the curtain.

Rebney is scholarly, intelligent, articulate, and a man of deep convictions. He has largely shunned society, retaining only a few close friends.  With the exception of his computer he has little use for most technology, and seems to be content to live out the rest of his life in a remote town. We learn that he worked in New York and Los Angeles for several decades in the field of broadcast news, and that his spokesperson gig for Winnebago was at the tail end of his career. We are left with two opposing portraits: an old man who has found peace with the world and wishes to live out his final days in solitude, versus a deeply reflective man who is highly critical of modern society and the political tide that has washed over the country. His ambivalence is exemplified by his contempt for the internet and most people, contrasted with a desire to be heard by those who would listen. When he finally gets to meet some of his fans, they are met with a strange mixture of irascibility and reverence. He seems to love an audience, yet abhor the mob mentality.

One area that Winnebago Man falters is not in its subject, Jack Rebney, but in its narrator/director, Steinbauer. He’s clearly frustrated with Rebney because he will not cooperate with his questioning, refusing to reveal anything about his childhood or failed marriage. Steinbauer argues that people will be more willing to accept Rebney’s views in the present if they are aware of his past. Steinbauer does not seem to be interested in meeting Rebney with respect for the here-and-now, and appears to be disappointed because the man does not conform to his expectations. There is a conflict of personal agendas, with Steinbauer the documentarian looking for a willing subject and Rebney just wanting to be understood. Consequently, we only see a rough sketch of the present-day Jack Rebney, with little insight into his beliefs or values. It’s possible that some of these details were left on the cutting room floor, and Rebney’s personal views were deemed beyond the scope of the documentary, but these details could have helped to uncover the real human being that existed beyond the caricature.  

Ultimately, Winnebago Man has more to say about who we are than who Jack Rebney is. We are left with an incomplete story, the rest of which will likely never be known. The person that we’ve concocted in our mind’s eye can never quite compare to the real one. Our celebrities are never what we imagine them to be.  Maybe the message of Winnebago Man is something else, something more telling about the nature of fame and our identity. It’s a little sad that Rebney will be remembered for his tirade, not for his thoughts. How much of fame involves someone who did not need or want an audience, but found it anyway? Amidst this portrait of an enigmatic hermit we are left with some unsettling truths: we are not always masters of our own destiny, and we are not in control of how we will be remembered.

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