March 06, 2013

WINNEBAGO MAN Examines Life Beyond The Meme


"I have no interest at all in getting to the person.  I don't want the reality of it, I want to see the buffoon." 
"He's everybody's grandpa.  Everybody's angry grandpa."

I'm going to preface this entry by saying that Tuesdays are going to be rather tricky for me.  In addition to my day job and this seemingly Sisyphean undertaking, I also host pub trivia at a friend's bar, which means I only have so many hours in the day to watch a movie and also write something up.  Most weeks I'm just not going to be able to do both, so Tuesday's writing is often going to be delayed until Wednesday.  At the same time, I REALLY enjoyed Monday night's screening of Park Chan-Wook's Stoker, so I don't want to rush through writing about it just to keep from being two movies behind all week long.  So instead I'm going to go out of order and talk about Tuesday's viewing of Winnebago Man.

I really like sushi.  I was a picky eater as a child, but my friend Bart finally convinced me to try it after college and I really enjoyed it.  My wife, on the other hand, has no taste for the stuff, which means that I generally don't eat it very often.  In fact, I often go long periods of time without eating sushi at all, to the point that I eventually forget just how much I like it.  Then I find myself in front of a sushi buffet at some work function or alumni event and I think to myself, "Oh yeah!  This shit is delicious!"

I have a similar attitude about documentaries.  Since my background is in acting and directing, my attention is naturally drawn to narrative films, but then every so often I end up seeing a documentary and I'm suddenly reminded, "Oh yeah!  This shit is delicious!"  My recent wake up call came while watching the excellent Paul Williams: Still Alive on a plane ride home after Christmas.  In a sense I think that the documentary style has been somewhat diluted by the rise of weekly "reality" programming, (or as I call it, The Death Of Television) but whether it's centered around a specific person like Paul Williams or focusing on a more general story like Murderball, documentaries offer us a unique window into the drama of the real.

My wife often teases me because, while I am certainly a child of the digital age as well as an acolyte at the altar of technology, there are wide swaths of the internet to which I not only remain ignorant, but also actively avoid.  I don't have the time or patience to engage with people on message boards and comment sections (To quote Josh Lyman, "It's Lord Of The Flies in there!") and the majority of memes rise and fall without my knowledge.  That includes a lot of viral videos, so it was hardly a surprise that the subject of Winnebago Man was entirely unknown to me prior to hearing about this doc.

The Winnebago Man YouTube clip (amassing over 4 million views as of this writing) is a series of outtakes from a Winnebago company industrial video starring salesman Jack Rebney.  The video (and Rebney himself) are commonly referred to as "The Angriest Man In The World," as it's essentially 5-10 minutes (there are different cuts out there) of Rebney swearing at his film crew, cursing himself as he forgets his lines and angrily swatting at flies in the sweltering Iowa heat.  If you haven't seen the video before, hell even if you've already seen it a dozen times, then I defy you to click on one of the above links and not laugh out loud.

What separates Winnebago Man from most other viral videos is that it achieved cult fame long before the advent of the internet.  The montage was actually passed around on VHS tapes, each one getting copied and recopied whenever it changed hands until most people probably were probably watching fourth or fifth generation versions.  Once it found its way to YouTube, the Winnebago Man quickly became a worldwide phenomenon.  However, no one really knew what had become of Rebney himself, with many assuming he had died of an ulcer or a heart attack.  The man was a celebrity, despite the fact that nobody really knew who or where he was.

The documentary chronicles director Ben Steinbauer's quest to track down Rebney and discover the truth behind this ornery idol.  The hunt is interesting, but in the end, Rebney just turns out to be a crotchety old man who lives alone in in the mountains of Northern California.  He's very well read and he clearly has an affinity for language, never saying two words when he could say ten instead.  While he's aware of his internet fame, he regards it as a just another sign of humanity's plummeting collective IQ.  He doesn't want to talk to Steinbauer about himself or his notoriety.  He'd rather discuss the epic tome he's been writing about politics and religion, or how Dick Cheney is the worst person in the world.  He's long since resigned himself to the fact that society is not living up to his exacting standards, and so he's removed himself from it and seems content to curse and mutter to his dog Buddha instead of living with the hell that is other people.

Rebney's outlook is perfectly understandable considering the background information we do get about the man.  In the 1970s he was broadcast news director, although he eventually became fed up with what he saw as a cult of personality and left the business.  He eventually moved to Iowa and became a Winnebago salesman until he eventually shot the company's now infamous industrial video.  How did the outtakes ever make their way out to the public?  It turns out that the crew hated working for him so much that they cut his profane outtakes together, passed it out amongst themselves, and sent it to Jack's bosses at Winnebago specifically to get him fired.  Phone calls were made, statements were taken, and within a month Jack was gone.  He dropped off the grid and would remain MIA for about twenty years until Steinbauer eventually tracked him down in his mountain hideaway.

Far more interesting than the story of what happened to Jack Rebney is the idea of examining the actual people who exist long after the few rogue minutes of their life that were captured on film and put on display for our collective entertainment.  Early on, we get a montage of clips from various viral videos of people destroying their office equipment in frustration, unexpectedly vomiting on live TV, and painfully injuring themselves, most frequently by falling down.  (Again, I'll admit that most of these clips were pretty unfamiliar to me, except of course for the would-be ninja with the Afro.  That guy's persistence never ceases to amaze me.)  Steinbauer then devles into the saga of the infamous Star Wars Kid, who received so much harassment that he was eventually placed in a psychiatric facility.  The video was put online by mean spirited classmates, whom the boy's family later took to court.  This was the case that first coined the term cyber-bullying, a historical footnote of which I was unaware.  Honestly, I wish the film had spent a little more time on this aspect; Steinbauer uses it as context to wonder if Rebney is ashamed and hiding from his video legacy, but it seems like only a matter of time before someone puts together a compelling documentary that really explores this concept and these people in greater depth.

The movie eventually loops back around to this idea when Rebney is finally convinced to attend San Francisco's Found Footage Festival, where they've been showing the Winnebago Man video for years.  Rebney has a sense of trepidation about the whole thing, semi-convinced that he's going to come face to face with a crowd of slack-jawed morons.  Based on the interviews that take place with audience members in line, his concerns are not entirely unfounded, as a number of them basically say, "I hope he says 'fuck' a lot."  But after they show the video once more, Rebney comes on stage and the audience adores him.  He's downright playful with the festival's co-hosts (who are simply overjoyed to be in the same room with him) and when Rebney does eventually let loose and swear at the end, the crowd goes fucking NUTS.  Afterwards a number of people come up to meet him, including one very sweet girl who says that she watches his video whenever she's having a bad day and it always cheers her up.  Rebney seems truly touched by her story.

Meanwhile those same audience members from before the show all rally to give me hope for humanity; rather than be disappointed that he didn't live up to their expectations as a guy who was essentially just going to swear and insult everyone, they feel guilty about their warped expectations.  In reality Jack Rebney seems like a sweet, well meaning, intelligent guy.  Yes, he also has a temper and he can certainly be difficult to get along with, but so what?  You can say the same thing about me, and I could probably say the same thing about you too.  We're all multi-faceted beings and no one should be judged on the actions of a single moment in time, no matter how outrageous (or unintentionally hilarious) it might be.

Except for extreme examples.  As the old joke goes, "You fuck one goat..."

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Title: Winnebago Man
Director: Ben Steinbauer
Starring: Jack Rebney, Ben Steinbauer
Genre: Documentary
Year Of Release: 2009
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)