If you’re not familiar with the name Jack Rebney, then you might be familiar with the Winnebago Man. If this name doesn’t ring a bell, then maybe you’ve heard of The Angriest Man in the World. I wasn’t familiar with the name or the titles until I read about the new documentary, Winnebago Man, which chronicles Jack Rebney’s rise to viral video infamy and the filmmaker’s search for him after he disappeared after filming the infamous Winnebago commercial in which his mistakes ballooned into angry, obscenity filled tirades. What may seem like a simple documentary on the surface is actually full of insight into contemporary media, culture, public discourse, and cyber-bullying.If you aren’t familiar with Rebney’s blooper-inspired tirade, here it is. WARNING: EXTREMELY STRONG LANGUAGE THROUGHOUT!
The video, originally on VHS, was copied over and over again and passed, literally, from hand to hand…a viral video long before the arrival of the Internet. However, with the advent of the Internet and the overnight popularity of YouTube, someone converted it, uploaded it, and it went viral all over again. Like nearly everyone who watched it, documentary filmmaker Ben Steinbauer saw something else at work in both the video and people’s reaction to it. He set about making the documentary, interviewing a variety of individuals from the crew that filmed the commercial to media scholars to fellow filmmakers about the appeal of the video and how it came into existence. He also provides a brief foray into the popularity of viral videos in general and discusses their appeal and to viewers and their danger to their subjects with media scholars. Steinbauer eventually tracks down Rebney, who retired to become a caretaker of a fishing resort in northern California. Though Steinbauer tries to get Rebney to open up about his personal life, all Rebney wants to talk about is the devolution of the media and political corruption. As such, the film becomes a fascinating look at the changing worlds of technology, media, and culture.
The documentary is especially poignant now with school bullying, cyber-bullying, and teen suicide ever in the news. Steinbauer reveals how embarrassing videos that have gone viral and the accompanying ridicule and bullying of their subjects have caused them deep trauma and distress. Although Steinbauer does not follow through with this initial conversation, it does provide an interesting framework for the rest of the film that follows, even if Rebney was unaware of his “popularity” all along.
Steinbauer saw something interesting in not only Rebney’s explitive-filled rants but the public’s obsession with them as well. That fans of Rebney’s video repeatedly assert that they admire him for saying whatever comes to his mind begs the question of why they can’t also express their thoughts and feelings. The documentary essentially asks if our unwillingness to speak freely is simply a matter of politeness or rather a unhealthy effort to bottle up our true emotions.
Towards the end of the film, Steinbauer wonders if Rebney’s tirade can daily remind us that we are not alone in our own mistakes and our frustrations with them. Perhaps Rebney can speak for us on our worst days when we don’t feel comfortable expressing that anger ourselves. A highlight of the documentary features several young viewers approaching Rebney at screenings of Steinbauer’s film and telling him that when they have bad days, they just watch his video, and it puts them in a better mood. As a result, I wonder if this video, and others like it, hasn’t become a digital version of Lamentations.
Don’t let the offensive language put you off, because Winnebago Man is one hilarious, thought-provoking, and, ultimately, touching film. One of the DVD’s few special features contains footage of the film’s New York City premier and is one of those rare cases in which it should have been in the film itself. Don’t ignore it.
Winnebago Man (85 mins.) is unrated but contains extremely strong language throughout and is available on DVD through Netflix and Amazon.