Winnebago Man

WINNEBAGO MAN

In the Book of Job, Satan bets God that he can turn the Lord’s most faithful servant against him. Because God loves a good wager, he takes Satan up on this, and the dark one sets his crosshairs on the pious Job, arranging for thieves to steal his riches and for a house to collapse and kill his children. When that doesn’t work, Satan covers Job in boils from head to toe, and in his suffering Job finally cracks, cursing the night he was conceived and the day he was born. “Why is light given to him that is in misery,” Job asks, “and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hid treasures, who rejoice exceedingly and are glad when they find the grave?”

For those of you not inclined toward the Old Testament there’s Jack Rebney, the unwilling star of a video clip that VH1 has ranked as the third greatest viral video of all time. In August 1988 Rebney was working for Winnebago Industries in Forest City, Iowa, writing and performing in a half-hour sales pitch for some of the company’s latest RVs. The two-week shoot reportedly took place in 100-degree heat and 98-percent humidity, on workdays stretching out to 12 and 14 hours; and as Rebney, beleagured by a near-biblical plague of flies, blew take after take after take, he began to melt down, spewing an endless stream of profanity. Some clown on the project compiled a tape of Rebney’s greatest moments, and it became a cult favorite, copied and recopied for years afterward. I first saw it in 2004 when it screened as part of the Found Footage Festival, a touring program of video scavenged from garage sales, thrift stores, garbage cans, and god knows where else. The outtakes went up on YouTube in 2005, and at this point they’ve been watched by more than 20 million people, inspiring tongue-in-cheek references in movies and TV shows.

Rebney’s video outbursts have won him the sobriquet of Angriest Man in the World, but what makes the bloopers so arresting is his evident misery. If you’ve ever done any kind of recording, you know that the mental pressure increases with each error, until you feel as if there’s a house sitting on you. “My mind is just a piece of shit this morning!” Rebney declares in one outtake. Mixed in with his temperamental explosions are courtly expressions (“Will you do me a kindness?” he asks an offscreen intern, in one of his most quoted lines) that suggest a dignified man being pushed past the point of exasperation into existential crisis. “I don’t want any more bullshit any time during the day, from anyone,” he announces at one point. “That includes me!”

Documentary maker Ben Steinbauer was among those cultists who couldn’t get enough of Jack Rebney, and in 2006 he resolved to track down this legendary crank. It wasn’t easy: Rebney had completely dropped out of sight, and Winnebago Industries wanted nothing to do with Steinbauer’s project. From the jokey credits included with one version of the outtakes he managed to find members of the video’s crew, who sat for interviews and regaled him with stories of the hellish shoot and Rebney’s irascible behavior. Finally Steinbauer consulted a private detective, who turned up a series of post office boxes registered in Rebney’s name over the years; Steinbauer sent letters to all of them and got a phone message from the Angriest Man in the World, now living in seclusion atop a mountain in northern California. Winnebago Man, which screens this week at Gene Siskel Film Center and returns to town in early August for a theatrical run, chronicles all this and more, giving Rebney a chance to unload in front of the cameras again but also presenting him as a real human being instead of the foaming caricature created by the outtakes. After 20 years, and against all odds, it restores his dignity.

Steinbauer widens the documentary’s social scope early on when he considers the viral video phenomenon and the damage done to those unlucky enough to be caught on camera doing something stupid. The most egregious example of this is the Star Wars Kid, a Canadian high school student in 2003 who taped himself horsing around with a golf ball retriever as if it were a light saber; after some of his classmates found the video and posted it online, inspiring Internet wags to add their own music and special effects, the humiliated kid dropped out of school and checked into psychiatric ward. Steinbauer also cites the case of Aleksey Vayner, a Yale student in 2006 whose vainglorious video resumé, Impossible Is Nothing, became an Internet hit. Interviewed for the movie, Vayner says he got thousands of e-mails ridiculing him. “It takes some time to come to terms with the fact that this is going to be part of your history,” he remarks.

Jack Rebney is in his late 70s when Steinbauer catches up with him, so presumably he’s not quite as emotionally vulnerable as these other two victims. On the other hand, the Winnebago outtakes have been part of his history for 20 years now, and in a way that makes his case all the more horrible; you wonder how he must feel looking back over his life and knowing that this is how he’ll be remembered.

Steinbauer opens with a scene of Rebney well into the documentary shoot, when the director and his subject had begun to butt heads over the direction the project was going. Rebney’s rant evokes the very outtakes that made him notorious but also encapsulates his dilemma in going before the camera again. “I’m 78 fucking years old!” he yells. “Why should I put up with this shit? It’s gonna make no difference whatsoever! ‘Cause the only thing it will come to is that, ‘Well, this guy’s been a fucking crazy all his life!'”

In fact, as the unfolding events reveal, the Winnebago outtakes had become a torment for him. When Steinbauer first arrives at Rebney’s mountain hideaway, where the old man works as caretaker for a little fishing resort, Rebney is serene, aware of but unconcerned by the fact that he’s become a YouTube sensation. “The old hermit bids you all good things,” he tells Steinbauer, who returns home to Austin wondering whether he really has a story. But a week later Rebney telephones Steinbauer, and the expletive-laden truth begins to spill out: he was furious and embarrassed when he learned the outtakes were online, and he considered suing everyone responsible for the blooper reel and its dissemination. When Steinbauer first approached him, Rebney reasoned that the best strategy would be an easygoing, avuncular performance to counter his apoplectic image. But now he’s changed his mind, and he wants the world to know the real Jack Rebney.

Steinbauer returns to the mountaintop to discover a complicated man with an intriguing story. (Spoilers follow, so check out here if you’re so inclined.) Rebney started out as a broadcast journalist, hoping to emulate people like Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid; he tells Steinbauer he got his start at WBBM in Chicago and went on to work as a news director in various cities before becoming disillusioned with the industry. Contrary to the image of an RV pitchman, he’s politically liberal and eager to share his thoughts about the sorry state of the country. For the past few years he’s been writing an intellectual tome called Jousting With the Myth: An Heretical Analysis of God, Religion, Sex, and Politics. Keith Gordon, an old friend of Rebney’s, pinpoints the inherent contradiction in his character: “He’s always wanted an audience, he’s always wanted to influence people’s thought process, [and] at the same time has always wanted to be totally isolated.”

The movie’s turning point comes in August 2007, when Rebney disappears—a story that, because of his Internet notoriety, becomes international news. Recently diagnosed with acute glaucoma, he’d gone for a walk with his dog, become disoriented, and slid into a creek drainage ditch, where he crawled on his hands and knees in total darkness, cold and wet, before sheriff’s deputies managed to recover him. “It’s a compelling moment,” Rebney tells Steinbauer, “a very visceral moment, when you come to the conclusion that, ‘I really can’t do it anymore.'” By the time Steinbauer improbably persuades Rebney to make a personal appearance at a Found Footage Festival program in San Francisco, the old man is blind and can only listen, his eyes darting around in the darkness, as the young people in the theater laugh at his 20-year-old ranting onscreen. When the lights come up, Rebney has to be led to the front of the room, his hand on Gordon’s shoulder.

By this time Rebney has become more real than both the Winnebago pitchman cursing the day he was born and the kindly old hermit bidding us all good things. As he finally seems to figure out from the audience’s reaction—not to mention the young women flocking to have their pictures taken with him in the lobby—he’s more the doomed hero of the outtakes than the goat, an everyman doing his best to make it through one more 12-hour day in the boiling heat as flies buzz around his ears and fatigue turns his brain to mush. His celebrity says less about him personally than about the helpless anger people learn to live with all the time. That may not be the legacy he dreamed of as a young man, but what the fuck do you want?