Pop culture events have changed in the last several years, shared experiences shifting from TV shows and sporting events increasingly to internet videos and memes that rapidly fall in and out of favor. The vanguard of what the massive web audience finds of interest is elusive, and shall remain so until the internet comes under tighter private control. In the meantime, the stars are accidental, anonymous individuals who have become public spectacles (though some self-promoting douches have struggled to attain momentary fame through their own videos). I have given little thought to who the people are who have been either maimed or otherwise humiliated, and this distance only makes the subjects of videos or photos more funny. Still, the people inside the fishbowl are real, and their unexpected notoriety has a real impact on their lives. Winnebago Man considers one such legend, Jack Rebney, who became famous even before internet videos for the outtakes of a crappy industrial video which dubbed him ‘The Angriest Man in the World’. This documentary takes a potentially fascinating subject and runs a little ways with it, considering what can happen in our era of incidental fame.
The filmmaker, one Ben Steinbauer, hunts down Rebney and finds he is living in a cabin in remote northern California. The remainder of the film is spent trying to get him to overcome his reluctance to reach out to a world that found him to be incredibly fucking funny. One expects what the filmmaker expected – a vulgar and irascible character who would say ‘fuck’ fairly often while going on unpredictable tangents. If you have seen the video (those not living in a Siberian bunker), it shows a clearly frustrated man in shirt and tie who clearly hates his job. People derived a great deal of joy from his misfortune. I admit I was fascinated by Rebney as well – angry, energetic, and funnier the more angry he got. He was no common idiot, though. From what little we could glean from such a brief performance, he appeared to be quite clever, well-read, and well aware that words like ‘accoutrement’ do not belong in a shitty video about Winnebagos. In Winnebago Man, Rebney is drawn out bit by bit, and it is apparent he enjoys being in front of a camera, and has a great deal to say.
Since the outtakes from his video made the rounds, Rebney was fired by Winnebago Industries, and he subsequently disappeared from view, working odd jobs, and reading every book he could get his hands on. He seemed disappointed by humanity in general, and is of the opinion the world is going to hell. Now losing his sight (he is functionally blind) and despairing of his place in the world, Rebney seems to have become the man in the video. He once worked in the field of journalism, toiling in the shadow of his heroes like Edward Murrow. He was disillusioned when news agencies were stripped of their influence and budgets by corporate owners into watered-down information sources, stooping to other jobs like making training videos for Winnebago. Small wonder he hated it. The strength of the film lies in the insights into Rebney’s personality, and how his perceptions of the world changed with time. As he got older, and failures mounted, he lost his idealism and his singular drive to, as he put it, ‘make people understand.’ Understand what? Same thing many of us want those around us to understand – one’s own worldview and concern for where our planet is headed. It is a disconcerting feeling when one learns that they lack the skill or charisma to articulate to people in a way that can motivate. We think we can conquer the world in our twenties, come to realize the compromises required to make a difference in our thirties, and despair of our shortcomings in our forties. Or perhaps come to terms with being utterly ordinary. Rebney has regrets over his losses and his inability to be a force of change. Instead, all he has to show for his years of toil is being a laughingstock on YouTube.
Winnebago Man does give us a window into Mr. Rebney’s mind, but it fails to take the next step. The director offers the man a chance to do more videos, but does not get why Rebney is not interested in this. After all, the guy aches for a time when he could talk to the world about what is going on, and all the filmmaker wants to do is get him to talk about himself? Seems like a winner, except the man does not want to fortify his status as a caricature – he carefully explains to Steinbauer that he wants to be a voice in a changing world. The director does not seem to get this. Ultimately, Jack Rebney feels a moment of redemption at the Found Footage Festival as he sees the other side of his video – people are laughing at him, but are mostly laughing at themselves. His rage is articulate, and we only wish we could let loose with an unsanitized version of our thoughts. Our every moment is spent being somebody else, a socially responsible and clean version of us. ‘The Angriest Man’ video is a cathartic experience for being unscripted. And this is what was ultimately frustrating about Winnebago Man. Ben Steinbauer wanted a scripted output from Rebney, rather than just giving him a license to yammer on about whatever the fuck he wanted. Rebney points out that the director does not understand him, and he is correct. The video is funny because it is wonderfully spontaneous, and Rebney in this film is funny as shit for the same reason. And he is thoughtful, reflective, and has nothing to lose. He wants to go on some serious rants; he wants to go off on Dick Cheney, and the filmmaker stops him because “nobody wants to hear about politics”. Um, the fuck we don’t. We want to hear some shit, and we will decide what that shit is (as an official representative of the internets).
Winnebago Man is interesting only as far as its subject, Jack Rebney, is fascinating in his experiences in unintended fame across the world. The documentary stumbles as it wishes to control the magnetic personality at its core, and this was truly a loss. Shit My Dad Says, Tourette’s Guy, and any number of subjects amidst the WWW detritus have in common an unplanned quality. If Rebney had simply the opportunity to just hold forth on whatever is pissing him off today, the film could have been six hours long and entertaining from start to finish.