Yesterday, me and my sister Erin saw the documentary Winnebago Man at the Dallas Angelika. The Angelika is absolutely my favorite theater in the entire world. It’s also just about the only place in Dallas that you can see offbeat, out-of-the-mainstream movies like Winnebago Man. Add to that, the Angelika is located right next to the Mockingbird DART rail station and it’s right next to the Townhouse Irish Pub. There’s also a Virgin Megastore, an Urban Outfitters, and a Victoria’s Secret (among other stores) right next to the theater. So, for me, a taking the train to see a movie at the Dallas Angelika is like a scaled-down version of one of those “shopping spree” montages that always seem to turn up in romantic comedies. It’s like catch the train, shop for lingerie, see an art film, get drunk on Guinness, and then take the train back home. What could be better?
Well, there is one problem with the Dallas Angelika and that is that it is located right next to Southern Methodist University. For those of you who aren’t natives of Dallas, SMU is where the rich kids go to major in Business, Rohypnol, and youthful fascism. Going to the Angelika means you’re always going to have the risk of having more than a few SMU toadsuckers and dumbfugs in the audience with you. You can always spot them because they’re the ones who make it a point to laugh the loudest at the most obvious of jokes. I guess it’s their way of trying to convince the rest of us that they actually are capable of semi-intelligent thought.
Quite a few of them were in the audience for Winnebago Man. Erin and I were unlucky enough to attract the attention of two of them. They sat down in front of us and, as we waited for the movie to begin, they turned around in their seats and asked us if 1) we lived nearby and 2) if we wanted to “hang out sometime.” And while I’m certainly not a stranger to occasionally lowering my standards for the sake of a good time, I do have a problem with people who ask me if I want to “hang out,” as if I should just be so flattered to have the opportunity to be a part of their social circle. So, I smiled and said, “No, but my sister’s available.” Erin still hasn’t forgiven me.
Now, you may be wondering why these two idiots would have any interest in seeing a documentary not entitled Jackass or Girls Gone Wild. Well, once the film started, it quickly became obvious that they (and most of the other SMU blackshirts in the audience) were fans of the original Winnebago Man video that inspired this documentary. That video consists of outtakes of a man named Jack Rebney attempting to film a promotional video for Winnebago. In the outtakes, Rebney continually forgets his lines, angrily curses, complains about the heat, and continually fights with an intern who, at one point, literally throws a towel at him. An excerpt from the video can be found below:
Now, I have to be honest. Up until I first saw the trailer for this documentary, I had never heard of the “Winnebago Man,” (also known as the Angriest Man In The World) and I’m almost as addicted to searching YouTube as I am to divulging TMI details of my life on twitter. However, apparently, the Winnebago Man is one of the most popular videos on Youtube. As director and narrator Ben Stienbauer explains in this documentary, a large part of the appeal of the Winnebago Man outtakes is that you’re literally seeing the worst day of Jack Rebney’s life. Not only is he making a video promoting the Winnebago (or as I call them, Murdermobiles, because it’s impossible for me to imagine anyone other than a serial killer owning one) but he’s apparently doing it in the worst heat possible and getting attacked by flies as he does so. It’s hard for the viewer not to relate his bad day to her own bad days. However, what really makes the video memorable is that Rebney doesn’t just quietly accept the heat, the flies, and the frustration. Instead, he fights back in the only way he can — with constant variations on the “F” word. Just watching the excerpts included in the documentary, I found myself wishing that I had simply told the two guys sitting in front of us, “Do me a kindness and fuck off.”
The documentary Winnebago Man beings with Ben Stienbauer telling us how he first saw the footage in the early 90s (in those pre-youtube days, it was apparently passed around on VHS tapes) and how the sight of angry, dehydrated Jack Rebney came to obsess both him and several other filmmakers. Eventually, Steinbauer decides to try to track down Rebney (though he initially believes that there’s a good chance that Rebney’s dead) to find out what happened the day that infamous Winnebago video was filmed and whether or not Jack Rebney is indeed the angriest man in the world.
The first half of Stienbauer’s film is taken up with the search and for me, this is the best part of Winnebago Man. Stienbauer makes for a likable protagonist and the aspiring detective in me loved watching as he explained, step-by-step, how he went about finding the elusive Jack Rebney.
Even better, Stienbauer devotes a good deal of Winnebago’s Man first half examining why and how people become internet celebrities. As Stienbauer correctly points out, most Internet celebrities are not known for being succesful. Instead, they — like Jack Rebney — often become famous as a result of having something humiliating and degrading happen to them while being filmed. One example that Stienbauer makes effective use of is the infamous “Star Wars” kid who became the most popular video on YouTube and ended up having a nervous breakdown as a result. In many ways, Internet fame is the cruelest fame because not only is it a fame based on failure but the failure is usually very personal. Stienbauer himself admits that there’s a certain morbidity behind his desire to find Jack Rebney. He wants to see is Rebney has survived being known as the “Winnebago Man.”
Well, Stienbauer does find Jack Rebney and it turns out that Rebney has survived. In his 80s, Rebney is nearly blind and lives an isolated existence in a cabin on a mountain. Stienbauer finally visits his idol and discovers just who exactly the angriest man in the world really is.
For me, Winnebago Man is far less effective once Stienbauer actually finds Jack Rebney because it turns out that, in real life as opposed to in outtakes from a 20 year-old promotional video, Rebney is kind of a pain. While Rebney first attempts to present himself as being a calm, rather mild man (in an attempt to counter his angry reputation), he soon starts to make regular phone calls to Stienbauer (all of which were, of course, recorded by the filmmaker) and gradually, he reveals his true self.
What is that true self?
Well, he’s kind of an asshole, to be honest. He’s essentially an angry, incredibly boring old man who still can’t get over the fact that it’s not 1955 anymore. When Stienbauer asks him what he wants to do with his Internet fame, Rebney says he wants to deliver a political message to everyone younger than him. That message, by the way, is that Dick Cheney’s a crook. Well, no shit. Thanks for sharing. Rebney doesn’t seem to get that my generation figured that out way before his generation did. In the end, Jack Rebney just comes across as an angry old crank who wants to complain about the world being fucked up when he’s a part of the group that fucked it up in the first place.
I mean, thanks for trying to tell me how to live my life but I think I’ll survive quite nicely without the advice. Quite frankly, I don’t have much use for the Jack Rebneys of the world.
Winnebago Man is an interesting documentary that examines just what exactly it means to be famous in today’s world. Though Jack Rebney himself eventually proves to be unworthy of such interest, the story of how Ben Stienbauer tracked him down and the “relationship” (it’s never exactly a friendship) that is created as a result is fascinating and thought-provoking. I remained interested in Jack Rebney’s story even as I found myself wanting to ask him to do me a kindness and shut the fuck up.