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Winnebago Man: movie review

'Winnebago Man' tells the tale of Jack Rebney, an RV salesman whose expletive-laden sales pitch goes viral, and the man who tracks him down 20 years later.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / July 23, 2010



On a very hot, fly-infested summer day in Iowa in 1988, a well-tailored, middle-aged RV salesman named Jack Rebney filmed an infomercial for the Winnebago corporation and nearly had a meltdown.

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Profanity-laced VHS outtakes from his sales pitch were subsequently cobbled together and passed around by his vengeful crew, whom he had constantly berated. When five-minute bootleg clips of Rebney's rants were ultimately posted on the Internet, they went viral, eventually becoming one of the most popular and notorious entries in YouTube history.

Ben Steinbauer, the director of the new documentary "Winnebago Man," first saw the Rebney video in 2002 and wanted to find out more about the man dubbed on the Internet as the "Angriest Man in the World." His film is ostensibly about how he tracked Rebney down.

A film instructor at the University of Texas, Austin, Steinbauer structures his film as a quest, with Rebney the holy grail. He understands that not everybody – not even many of Rebney's fanatic Internet followers – wants to know any more about him than that single notorious clip. Rebney's allure is bound up with his anonymity, and yet anonymity on the Internet is a tricky proposition. Like Rebney, you can be both an unknown and an international cult celebrity.

With the expanding confluence of the Internet and ever-cheaper movie-making equipment, it's inevitable that we will be seeing more movies like Steinbauer's. They will become a new genre. "Winnebago Man" demonstrates how everything that is recordable in our lives now, whether we are aware of the recording or not, is grist for the media mill. Rebney's unguarded rant, the notoriety of which, as it turns out, he was totally unaware until Steinbauer contacted him, not only took on a life of its own but also granted a new life of sorts to both the ranter and the filmmaker. (I'm not giving anything away to say that Steinbauer tracked down Rebney – the documentary, after all, opens with a clip of the two men together.)

Steinbauer was initially taken aback by the apparent placidity of this 76-year-old man living hermitlike atop a northern California mountain. Is he being conned by Rebney, or is it the other way around? For all his geniality, it's glaringly obvious that Steinbauer's fascination with the Winnebago Man is more than personal: It's professional. No Rebney, no movie.

At one point, in an effort to provide a deep-think context to all this, Steinbauer interviews Douglas Rushkoff, the author of "Playing the Future" who coined the term "viral video." Rushkoff drones on about "collective guilt" and all that jazz, but he does bring up the humiliation factor that is essential to so many of the viral videos (as well as reality TV shows like "America's Funniest Home Videos"). It's incontestable that, despite the outpouring of sympathy and even love for Rebney that comes through in "Winnebago Man," his fame inevitably derives from our voyeuristic glee in watching him make a fool of himself (though, as a former professional newsman, his meltdowns are eerily well enunciated). The element of sadism inherent in Internet celebrity of this sort is underplayed in "Winnebago Man," perhaps because Steinbauer doesn't want to come across like a freak. But there's an unmistakably sourish aspect to his quest, even if, at least from what we are shown, the outcome is upbeat. Ultimately, Steinbauer is onto a larger subject than he can grasp within his personal odyssey's confines. What this film is really about is how interconnected we all are, like it or not, on the Internet, and how alluring and alarming this can be. Grade: B (Unrated.)

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