Rage Against the Machine
If we’ve learned nothing else from reality television, it’s that as a culture we love watching people get hurt. Whether it’s the slapstick physical pain delight of a Wiffleball bat to the baby batter blaster, the unabashed glee of seeing someone else’s children crashing a runaway snow sled into a parked Datsun, or watching a sleazy gangsta wannabe crumple up when Maury tells him that he IS, in fact, the father, we live for that shit. It’s these disposable moments we’ve all experienced one way or another that makes us laugh and feel a little better about our own empty and meaningless lives. Well, maybe not the paternity test, but you see where I’m coming from. We enjoy the punchline; we don’t want the backstory. Nutshots are funny. We don’t want to know the father ended up sterile and beat his resentment into his son until he grew up and joined the army. The crash is funny, we don’t want to see the mother wailing as she carries her broken child through the ER doors only to have him lapse into a coma or lose an eye. We don’t want to know that the embarrassment of having his lapsed morals caused the father of the newborn to commit suicide. We like to see people at their worst, and we don’t care what the consequences might be, whether it’s isolation, lawsuits, or death.
But that’s what Winnebago Man is about — the consequences of having your shame broadcast for the entertainment of others. Several years ago, YouTube featured a clip titled “THE ANGRIEST RV MAN IN THE WORLD!” It was the outtakes of an industrial video for the Winnebago corporation, showing a charming older salesman essentially losing his shit and swearing every 15 seconds in a blooper reel that became legend. It was everywhere. People started quoting it to each other like a favorite movie. “Get out of here, you fucking flies!” or “Do you believe any of that shit?” became just as popular as “Where’s the beef?” or “And don’t call me Shirley.” At the center of the whirlwind was the actor himself, Jack Rebney, with his folksy charm and booming sonorous delivery. Much like the Numa Numa boy, Tay Zonday and his chocolate rain, or the dramatic hamster, it was an instant hit. Personally, I love the video. I’ve been that pissed before. Unlike the puerile Gibson/Bale rants, Rebney’s bitchery has that light-hearted “do you believe this shit” kind of laugh-along chuckle to it. And unlike Kim Kardashian, who foisted her massive-assed Kardashi-kin upon us after getting caught on tape taking loads from a has-been’s never-was, Rebney wasn’t trying to parlay his shame into a record deal or a reality series or a Carl’s Jr. commercial. It was just some guy getting angry and it was — and still is — hilarious.
Winnebago Man asks and answers an interesting question: Whatever happened to that guy? The director Ben Steinbauer decides to track down Jack Rebney and find out what comprised life after losing it. Whether or not this is a question that we really want answered is what makes the film interesting. The film delves into the dark side of infamy — people whose lives and livelihoods were destroyed by the Internet. Rebney was fired over the outbursts — in fact, that was kind of the point of the crew assembling the video. They were so pissed at what a dick Rebney was during the shoot they put together the video to give to the Winnebago corporate offices in hopes of getting him fired. And here we were laughing at him. It ends up giving kind of a devious edge to the footage. Would we still laugh at videos of people falling down if we knew that after the camera stopped rolling they never got back up? And are we better for really knowing?
Steinbauer tracks down and finds Rebney in hermitage in the woods in northern California. And the rest of the film kind of deals with, well, where do we go from here? Now that we’ve found the Winnebago Man, what do we do with him? What follows is touching, hilarious, kind of underhanded and manipulative, and a little bit infuriating. Everyone’s got a secret agenda, but that’s essentially the brilliance of the documentary. What do people hope to get out of giving you access to their personal lives, and what does everyone hope to get out of the story of a charming, if cranky, old coot who had 15 minutes of internet fame from a moment where he lost his cool?
If there’s a flaw, it’s that Steinbauer interjects himself way too much into the storyline. Like him, I want to know about Jack Rebney. I could give a fuck about some filmmaking professor from Austin. Maybe when the outtakes from this documentary make it online, I’ll come see you. But until then, keep your damn camera on the crazy old swearing man. It calls to mind a much better documentary Best Worst Movie, in which the child star of Troll 2 decides to document the growing cult phenomena of their old movie. Even though he’s a legitimate subject, he never oversaturates the film with his presence. Same thing with the remarkable Restrepo; we never know who’s behind the camera. And that makes for strong documentaries — letting the subject tell the story. While a great portion of Winnebago Man deals with Steinbauer’s quest to track down the elusive Rebney, and the creepy slightly-obsessive fan mentality of that notion, it doesn’t require nearly so many shots of Ben sitting on the phone or driving the rental car.
This is not to say Winnebago Man isn’t a good documentary. It’s fantastic and thought-provoking. You wonder a little about whether people went the route of William Hung or that of the Star Wars kid pretending his mop handle was a lightsaber. It’s highly entertaining, as Rebney is hardly a disappointment. He’s a wily old cat with a newscaster’s basso brogue and a patois that’s delightfully urbane and almost overtly formal while still maintaining a sailorly surl. He’s kind of a less psychotic Gallagher, making you smile as he showers you with insults. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to call you a motherfucker, if only because it would feel like getting knighted. It’s definitely worth a gander if you get the opportunity.
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