REVIEW: Winnebago Man Explores Making and Breaking of a Viral Video Superstar
At 76, Jack Rebney speaks in rich, Orson Wellesian tones and has a gift for cursing that even the old master might have admired. Trained as a broadcaster but reduced, late in his career, to starring in in-house corporate videos, he's developed a peculiar persona: That of a quintessential disappointment artist. Rebney's extensive outtakes from a 1988 Winnebago marketing video suggest a man whose explosive reactions to the indignity of his predicament have taken on a performative zeal. Those outtakes, which became a hot commodity in the VHS underground before going viral on YouTube in 2005, inspired Winnebago Man, an earnest and occasionally poignant attempt to penetrate Rebney's potent man-on-fire image and explore the impact of becoming an Internet sideshow.
Welles himself got a posthumous taste of the Internet's jeering wrath when his own series of outtakes -- for wine and frozen-peas commercials -- surfaced online. They became so iconic that in this parody "Welles" randomly inserts lines from the latter botched commercial in one of his doomed takes for the former. The fascination has an element of cruelty to it; there is spectacle but also pathos in watching a great and proud man brought low in a bottom-feeding medium. Jack Rebney has inspired countless parodies as well, as director Ben Steinbauer points out. He has also infiltrated Hollywood, where sly nods to his oeuvre have been made in various films and TV shows. Cult status and 50 cents, it seems, can buy you almost total anonymity: Steinbauer sets out to find Rebney, whom many of his "fans" had assumed was dead, and that search and the ensuing tenuous relationship between director and subject structure this slight but enjoyable documentary.
The draw to Rebney's video is something Steinbauer doesn't examine that closely. After he shows us a few clips of Rebney, then 54, letting loose a superlative stream of insults and self-admonitions while trying to get through a godawful script, the case for Rebney's celebrity is presumed to be closed. Rebney is responding viscerally and with a healthy dose of self-loathing -- he really hates screwing up, even in a piece-of-crap production -- to the absurdity of the situation; he's an old workhorse in an existential bind. Though fans describe the laughter and even the succor they get from watching the clips over and over, there is an "either you get it or you don't" quality to his presentation of the material. Which is fair enough: Rebney diehards will definitely have their morbid curiosity sated; those looking for something more may find themselves, despite Rebney's powerful and diverting presence, a little frustrated.
Steinbauer, a young man who admits he was "obsessed" with the Winnebago outtakes, is warned against his mission by other Rebney fanatics ("I don't want the reality of it," one says, "I want to see the buffoon onstage"), and that mission does seem ill-defined. He begins by describing viral video celebrity as a form of modern tarring and feathering, and allows media critic Douglas Rushkoff to frame his quest as "paying the price for our collective cultural guilt at having humiliated this person." Once he meets Rebney, who has dropped off the grid and lives in a remote part of California, such pretenses surrender almost immediately to the force of Rebney's personality. An unreconstructed eccentric, he's perfectly content living alone on a mountain and nursing his various political theories and outrages (Dick Cheney looms large). He hardly seems aware of the hubbub caused by his bad week on set over two decades ago, and is not interested in what it all might mean. He's gruff but jovial, stubborn and very, very private.
But Steinbauer wants to make a documentary, and Rebney wants to talk. The tension that Steinbauer develops (he narrates and is often in the scenes himself) is drawn from an unselfconsciously ironic source: The implicit offer to make Rebney famous, to give him a voice. Rebney is angry -- angry enough to work on philosophical treatises against modernity, a ripe detail in a study of a modern micro-star that Steinbauer does not pursue. "This is not the context that Jack Rebney wants to be known in," his best friend of 35 years says, and yet Steinbauer, perhaps lacking a better idea, tethers him to the tapes and their notoriety, determined to squeeze meaning from the phenomenon. Eventually he convinces Rebney to attend a "found footage" festival in San Francisco, where the outtakes will play for an appreciative audience.
"You just do not get it, Ben," Rebney says, exasperated by Steinbauer's giddiness in asking how it felt when a recent accident (Rebney, who lost his vision to acute glaucoma over the course of the shoot, got lost on a walk near his home) made the international wires. Convinced that his celebrity can help reframe his life, Steinbauer focuses on redeeming Rebney ("I don't think you're taking advantage of the audience you have," he tells him, trying to persuade him to open a YouTube account and record weekly rants) and confronting him with those fans (who are nice enough but mostly want to hear him swear and then take a photo for their Facebook profiles).
At times it's quite painful to watch; Rebney's clashing desires for privacy and attention keep him locked in a battle of wills with the director. "This may be the last recorded film of you," Steinbauer says at one point, trying to taunt his subject into revealing -- what exactly? A human being emerges anyway -- Rebney has too much charisma and intelligence to remain a caricature. But a better director would have rewarded Rebney's seemingly compulsive participation by dropping his own guard a little, and just watching what happens.