Winnebago Man

I had never seen “The Angriest Man in the World” videos before I went in to see Winnebago Man, which is a little strange because it’s about finding the “star” of those clips: Jack Rebney.

YouTube celebrity, or “clip”ebrity, is a funny thing. Rebney is famous for being the short-tempered host of a Winnebago corporate video. Of course, none of the clips that made him famous actually went in to the real video. They were the outtakes, seemingly forgotten on the cutting room floor until someone picked them up, popped them into the VCR, and stumbled upon the foul-mouthed Rebney swearing at the camera and asking his crew if anyone was going to believe the shit he had to say about Winnebagos. It was comedic gold.

The video spread across the nation as people made copies and shared them with their friends (like The Ring, without the whole “die in seven days part”). For some reason, people loved Rebney’s meltdown. It might have been the ridiculousness of the situation, as the video was shot like a 70s educational short complete with the groan-inducing jokes (“a journey begins with one step, but if you can’t step into this vehicle you aren’t going anywhere”) and the smarmy-looking host (Rebney has a killer ‘stache). But the more likely reason is that it’s just fun to watch people get angry. And Rebney, with his fierce rage and quotable soundbites, may just be the pinnacle of this form of entertainment.

The documentary starts after the laughter. The clips of Jack Rebney have been watched by millions, sometimes multiple times. One fan admits that she’s seen his videos several times, especially when she’s had a particularly bad day, as if Rebney’s fury is an outlet for her own. But the real story, like a VH1 special, is what’s behind the viral video. Who is Jack Rebney? Where is he now? How does he feel about being a Quasi-celebrity? But more importantly, is he still angry?

Ben Steinbauer set out to answer these questions after showing everyone he knows (including his university class) the “Winnebago Man” videos. He made phone-calls, read news clippings, and managed to track Rebney down to a secluded cabin in the woods. Without a video camera, this is called stalking. With one, it’s a documentary (would-be celebrity stalkers take note). The “quest” portion of the narrative, that is, searching for clues of Rebney as one would do with Bigfoot, ends about a third of the way into the film when Steinbauer comes face-to-face with his idol (subject?) and asks him to star in another film.

The most interesting part of Winnebago Man is what happens when we meet in the flesh the person we only saw through the camera (or laptop screen, as it is). During their first meeting, Rebney is a sweet and gentle old man living happily and reading classic literature to pass the time. He apparently hadn’t even heard about the video until Steinbauer brings it up on his computer browser. It seems like the video that people have found meaning in is nothing but a footnote in the life of its star. Steinbauer leaves Rebney feeling disappointed. He thought that meeting the man would be like a continuation of the the curse-spewing star of the viral video he regards so dearly.

A few months later, Rebney breaks the news to Steinbauer that he was lying the entire time, pretending to be “Mary Poppins,” as he puts it. He knew about the video long before the documentary crew came knocking at his door, but he thought that it was his chance to leave a normal, mild-mannered portrait of himself rather than the angry version he had become famous for. But he decides to change his mind and take the gloves off, so to speak. Rather than deny his “clip”ebrity, Rebney embraces it, and that’s when the film really begins.

Do we care about Rebney? That’s the question I kept asking myself throughout this documentary. We see people lining up for a film festival that has Rebney as a special guest star, but they’re just excited to see the angriest man in the world in the flesh. People snap photos beside Rebney after the show as if he is an item in a scavenger hunt. One audience member thought he was a great guy, but was a little put off when he got “political” by mentioning Dick Cheney. Steinbauer even asks Rebney to not talk about politics because no one is going to be interested in what he has to say about the situation. All we want to hear about is how the “Winnebago Man” videos were made, what the shoot was like, and maybe a bit about his childhood, to add a larger meaning to the clips. It feels like Steinbauer earning trivia points to bring up the next time he shows the video to friends (and see that tire over there? It went flat the next day and Jack was annnnngrry!). Do we care about Rebney? I’m still not sure if we do.

There’s two different sub-genres of documentaries that have cropped up in the past year. The first is the “hoax(?)” documentary, where viewers are unsure of the truth of what they are viewing. Examples from this year include Exit from the Gift Shop, Catfish, and I’m Still Here (the Joaquin Phoenix flick that ousted the fun when it was admitted to be a hoax). The second is the “ironic celebrity” documentary, which Winnebago Man and Best Worst Movie (about the notoriously awful Troll 2) fall under. I wonder if Winnebago Man is both. I don’t think Rebney is really the curmudgeon he seems to be, and that almost death-bed conversion back into furious mode is a little suspect. It seems like Rebney resigns himself to giving the people (and the filmmakers) what they want: the portrait of the angry young man as the angry old man. It may not be the real Rebney, but goddamn, it’s entertaining.

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