“Winnebago Man” brilliantly encapsulates the transformative power of the online video boom. Director Ben Steinbauer focuses on “one of the greatest swearers of all time,” the furious subject of a series of outtakes for a Winnebago promotional video, as both an example of viral media ramifications and a poignant character in his own right. The eponymous “Man,” a former broadcast journalist named Jack Rebney, existed for years in the public eye as the hilariously vulgar star of the “Winnebago Man” video, but his actual whereabouts remained unknown. Before YouTube launched in 2005, Rebney’s rage circulated among various communities on VHS and even wound up on television. It was the original Christian Bale meltdown.
After establishing Rebney’s enigmatic legacy, Steinbauer actually manages to track him down, and that’s when things get really interesting: Now a cantankerous octogenarian, Rebney lives alone in the woods at the top of the mountain, and has nearly gone blind. Although it takes more than one visit for Steinbauer to drag out Rebney’s real personality, once it literally erupts, the guy fulfills the expectations of the famous video. Like Howard Beale in “Network,” Rebney’s mad as hell, a profit of doom in his own insular world. But one of the major revelations once we get to know Rebney is that he truly does have a way with language — the cussing is just one part of the equation. In retrospect, Rebney’s viral appeal suggests that fans of the Winnebago video actually can detect this aspect of his virulent persona. When Steinbauer brings Rebney to the Found Footage Festival in San Francisco, audience members seem inspired by his presence. “He’s everybody’s angry grandpa,” one fan remarks.
Since we never delve beneath the surface of Rebney’s radical, extreme nature — he would prefer to discuss Dick Cheney’s criminality rather than open up about his personal life — the movie lacks one key aspect of the equation. However, our desire to learn more about Rebney’s background correlates with the movie’s enticing thesis about the profound psychological impulses behind viral phenomena. It’s symptomatic of a contemporary development that won’t go away. Like Rebney, we all live in public.
[Editor’s Note: Eric Kohn reviewed Ben Steinbauer’s “Winnebago Man” at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival. The film opens in limited release Friday, July 9th via Kino International.]