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Winnebago Man (2010) ****

November 3, 2010

written by: Malcolm Pullinger & Ben Steinbauer
produced by: Joel Heller, Malcolm Pullinger & Ben Steinbauer
directed by: Ben Steinbauer
unrated (yet filled with unlimited profanity!)
85 min.
U.S release date: July 9, 2010
DVD release date: November 2, 2010
I had never heard of the Winnebago Man, but when Ben Steinbauer’s latest documentary introduced me, I was immediately smitten. It wasn’t just that this seemingly ordinary middle-aged white guy was hilarious in his volatile profanity-laced tirade as he pitches various RV vehicles, although that played a strong factor. What was most striking (and inevitably endearing) about this acerbic amalgam of Harvey Korman and the dad from That 70’s Show, was that he appeared to represent the pent-up frustration that we often stifle. Or maybe I’m just speaking for myself. 
Jack Rebney was just letting loose in the most unfiltered way, as the cameras captured what apparently came naturally. Little did he know, a plethora of unfiltered outtakes would be culled from those industrial videos he made back in 1989, making him a bootleg sensation in the VHS world. Then, once the digital age hit, YouTube opened up a whole new arena for Rebney fans, introducing this foul-mouthed oddity to millions of new viewers. These clips would not only became a favorite at many found footage festivals across the nation, but also serve as a source of catharsis for viewers. They would find themselves laughing at the poor guy’s situation, the rawness of the low-budget footage, and of course, how colorful his language is.


Rebney may not understand the sensation of it all, but it’s clear that watching a guy lose his cool, without hurting anyone….is a blast. Who hasn’t wanted to just blow up at all the little things that build up over time? Every one has there breaking point, but not everyone has them captured in a continuous loop for all the world to see. There he was completely losing it at any minor line flub or brain fart, unintentionally connecting with a pop culture that couldn’t help but laugh, possibly finding catharsis in this short-tempered salesman.

Seeing these old tapes brought to mind so many of the cheesy TV commercials I would grew up with. I was often entertained at how awful some of the “actors” were but I never wondered to myself “who is that guy?” or  “where is he now?”  That’s what Steinbauer did though. He couldn’t help but wonder, whatever became of this bitter man who went on to become an internet sensation designated as “The Angriest Man in the World”? He states here that he felt bad for the guy and wanted to find out if he even knew what a hit all those outtakes from long ago had become.
In this handheld-heavy documentary, we follow Steinbauer as he tracks down Rebney, regardless of whether or he wants to be found. At first, my initial response to such a pursuit is for Steinbauer to leave well enough alone. Sometimes knowing more about the actual person takes away from the initial (in this case continuous) attraction. After all, what happens when he does find him? Of course, he does find him and we find out more about Rebney, from peaceful elder sage to cantankerous old coot…who is the real Jack Rebney?
I won’t go into the various avenues and methods Steinbauer employs in order to find this “Winnebago Man”, that’s part of the fun, after all. But I will say it’s a good thing he is such a charismatic subject since Steinbauer is the flipside, kind of flat in both his approach to filming and as a personality. We thank him for finding Rebney but then wish he would get out-of-the-way and allow us to just tag along with Rebney in his reclusive cabin in the Northern California woods. Maybe listen to him go off on how evil Dick Cheney is or watch his one true friend, Keith Gordon, put up with Rebney’s shenanigans. At least we get additional chuckles when Rebney purposefully butchers Steinbauer’s last name, like a cantankerous J.Jonah Jameson.
While Rebney is unintentionally funny, there is an inevitable tendency to feel for the guy the more we get to know him. Underneath the sheen of his acerbic demeanor, you realize he’s that gentle grandfather frustrated with “the state of the country” and consumerism. What I appreciated most about Steinbauer’s spotlight on Rebney is that we see a his various reactions to all those Internets making a big deal out of his outtakes. He can’t comprehend why they are interesting, is baffled by his sudden stardom, and at times even disgusted.  
As the film progresses, it become glaringly clear that Steinbauer would’ve done well to get step back and let Rebney be. We don’t need to see the documentarian make phone calls, check e-mails or his voice mail. Just move on with it already! Which is much nicer than anything Rebney would ever say. But really, with a presence like John Rebney, even blind in one eye, it’s difficult to deter or direct such a man. He is an immovable force of nature, a contemptuous storm with a keen mind and a sharp wit. Really, with all that Rebney has to offer, all Steinbauer has to do is just roll film on the guy and deal with editing later.
At the film concludes, we see Rebney begrudgingly accept an  invitation to the “Found Film Festival,” in San Franciso. A place where he is hailed as an icon. The hosts of the fest end the night by running his famous clips for what is probably the umpteenth time, while a quiet and nervous Rebney waits in the lobby. As we see him there, possibly with butterflies in his stomach (although he’d never admit it), it confirms what we have gradually learned….that Jack Rebney is just like any one of us. He’s quirky, volatile, and frustrated but he’s also sweet and charming, given the right moment, when his guard is down.
Steinbauer makes a good call by holding on Rebney’s face as he watches the audience in the auditorium while his clip rolls. He smiles and we’re left to wonder if he finds it all funny, if so, what exactly does he find funny? His video clips? The audience laughing? The surreal fact that he is actually standing there? The great thing is that we never truly know nor do we need to. Steinbauer knows that and in this ending, he just allows us to watch Rebney take in his throng of fans.  In the end, I got the feeling Rebney knows just how comical his reputation has become and  in a rare moment we see him grow as he realizes that some of those stupid Internets are surprisingly intelligent and pretty clever….just like him.

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