Anger management drives ‘Winnebago Man’
It gets hot during the summer in Iowa, very hot. It’s even worse when there’s no wind or shade, and a sullen production crew dislikes you even more than you dislike them. So you spend two weeks putting up with all that, while also having to get in and out of an RV while trying to sing its praises on camera, and . . . well, who wouldn’t go a bit nuts?
That’s what Jack Rebney did, anyway, back in 1988 — on camera, no less. It was road rage on the hoof. He’d curse up a storm during failed take after take while shooting an industrial film for Winnebago. The crew saw to it that a video of the outtakes made it to company headquarters. Copies of the video began to circulate. And circulate. And circulate. Then along came YouTube, in 2005, and Jack — the angry Winnebago Man — was everywhere.
Everywhere included under Ben Steinbauer’s skin. Steinbauer, who directed and helped write “Winnebago Man,’’ kept wondering about Rebney. Who is this guy? What is his back story? What did he think of going viral? Was he even still alive? The answers, we learn from Steinbauer’s new documentary, are:
1) an intelligent, if over-bearing, man in his late 70s who lives with a pit bull named Buddha;
2) a former television news director (he has the voice, and arrogance, of the host of a late-night radio call-in show);
3) not much, to the extent he has given it any thought at all;
4) yes (though you probably figured that one out by now).
We don’t meet the real Rebney until nearly a third of the way into “Winnebago Man.’’ Before that, Steinbauer explains how the video became a sensation. He dwells on his own obsession with Rebney (Steinbauer even hires a detective to help track him down). He also briefly ponders the phenomenon of viral video. Finally, the documentary settles into what it really is, a character study.
Above and beyond his Web notoriety, Rebney is an interesting guy. He lives by himself as a caretaker in a cabin in northern California. (Imagine what the Unabomber would have been like with his temper!) Still cursing like a drunken sailor — “I feel like I’ve stepped into the Winnebago Man outtakes,’’ Steinbauer confesses in his voice-over — Rebney also spouts polysyllabic words like a drunken professor and looks a bit like Alex Trebek about 3,000 “Final Jeopardy’’ answers down the road.
He’s not as interesting as Steinbauer seems to think he is, though. All the swearing gets tiresome after a while — not least of all because it’s so flat and reflexive. A white Richard Pryor Rebney is not. There’s no musicality to his obscenity. There’s not even any real anger to it. It’s a stick used by an old, disaffected man to brandish at the world and keep it at bay. The only real tension the documentary has, once Steinbauer has his first meeting with Rebney, is whether the filmmaker is celebrating him more than exploiting him. There’s a pathos lurking around the edges of “Winnebago Man,’’ and it has nothing to do with issues of fame or the power of the Web and everything to do with aging and alienation, neither of which the documentary seems able to comprehend.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.