I review the Kino DVD release of Ben Steinbauer’s 2010 documentary Winnebago Man for Turner Classic Movies.
Jack Rebney may not be a household name, but to a small, fervent following he’s a cultural icon, known as “The Angriest Man in the World” or simply “Winnebago Man.” His unique fame is the result of the original viral video, a montage of invective-laced outtakes from a Winnebago sales video that corporate pitchman Rebney wrote, produced and hosted. He flubs and forgets lines, fights with uncooperative panels and doors, lobs sarcastic comments at an unseen intern named Tony and lets his frustration pour out in uncensored streams. Originally passed around hand-to-hand on VHS tape dubs, it became a web sensation when some enterprising fan uploaded it to YouTube. What made the piece so much fun is not the language or the ire of the tirades, it’s Rebney’s delivery: ever the professional, he turns his tirades into a kind of performance art with a mix of creative cursing, self-effacing humor, crisp articulation and theatrical flair, much of it directed at himself.
Ben Steinbauer’s portrait of the man and the phenomenon begins as a documentary cliché: “Who was this guy and where did he come from? I decided to find out,” he muses to the camera. Unable to find this elusive character (a private detective finds little more than a string of P.O. Boxes in Rebney’s name), he tracks down the video crew (including Tony the Intern) and learns that they put together the original montage out of their own frustration and it got Rebney fired when someone slipped it to the Winnebago honchos. Steinbauer’s search has the obligatory feel of a filmmaker falling back on the familiar tropes of a documentary detective story. But when he finally makes contact and accepts an invitation to visit Rebney, the film finally finds its real story: a character piece on a genuine character.