Saturday, February 11, 2012

Day 73: Winnebago Man

"The mini-Winnie, part of American tradition, and today, on the cutting edge of design and function in a classy motor home... you believe any of that shit?"

Jack Rebney is part of a new breed of superstars. It's a broad, varied and distinctive group of people who have gained celebrity as part of that ubiquitous part of modern life known as the internets. All of the various internets have given rise to the most fleeting form of celebrity yet, the "viral video" star. These videos typically feature someone doing something embarrassing, knowingly or unknowingly, on video, and the video is then uploaded and shared on sites like you tube and passed from person to person through e-mail or facebook. The videos are enjoyed, derided, and forgotten about as soon as the next one comes along.

The interesting thing about Jack Rebney's video, however, is that it actually preceded the internet boom by about a decade. It first made the rounds via VHS tape, being duplicated and passed from person to person the old fashioned way. Ben Steinbauer is one of those people who has had one of these video tapes of Jack since the early 90s, and he has decided to document his experience trying to track down the guy in the video. So, what is this video? It's outtakes from a Winnebago industrial video, edited together in a torrent of anger and obscenities, featuring Jack Rebney, forgetting his lines and losing his temper with everyone around him, including himself. You can watch the entire video here, it's only seven and a half minutes, and is well worth your time...

So Jack gained some notoriety in the pre-internet age as the video was passed around, and once the internet came along, and sharing of the video became as simple as clicking copy, paste and send, his celebrity sort of exploded. But Steinbauer wants to know what became of the guy in the video. Is he still alive? Is he still angry? What are his thoughts on his pseudo-celebrity? Finding himself unable to track down any trace of Jack, Steinbauer hires a private investigator who turns up nothing but a series of PO Boxes which Ben then sends letters to in hopes of finding the man behind his cherished video. Improbably, he receives a response and begins his journey to find out what Jack Rebney is up to these days.

The answer is surprising, as he finds a man living in seclusion in the mountains of Northern California, who is calm to the point of zen, and seems to be at peace with the world and himself, harboring no ill will towards anyone who has used this video against him over the ensuing decades. Several days after leaving Jack's new home, Ben receives a phone call letting him know that he'd been had. Jack decided it was going to be easier for him to live out his remaining years in seclusion if he presented an image to the world of a man at peace, when in actuality, he's as ornery and fiery as ever, and has decided he wants to set the record straight and let people know how fucked up the world they're living in truly is. So Ben returns to California to find out who the real Jack Rebney is, and maybe get some answers to his still lingering questions.

I wasn't sure what to make of Winnebago Man. I thought that I knew what kind of movie it was going to be before I watched it, and while it was similar to my expectations, it sort of transcended them a bit. The film is very similar to another documentary, Best Worst Movie, about the lives of the people from the 80s cult classic Troll 2. Both films have a similar agenda, trying to humanize the people behind embarrassing pop culture, while ultimately using their humanness to condemn the people who are amused by their failures. I don't think Steinbauer has as much contempt for the audience, as he is one of the people who has enjoyed the video for years, whereas Best Worst Movie was directed by one of the stars of Troll 2 and definitely has an agenda of condemnation in mind.

Jack Rebney does a pretty good job of making you despise and pity him simultaneously. He has no interest in redeeming people's opinion of him, but has enough universal flaws to make you see yourself in him, both in his old videos and now, as an angry old man at the end of his life. Steinbauer's love of Jack is evident in his persistence to get him to open up, and I feel that this is very close in spirit to American Movie, another documentary I love, in that the filmmaker and the subject seem to share a subversive, winking conspiracy that no one who watches the film will ever truly know what the real people behind the film are like. This film also shares that film's minor triumphant conclusion, where the subject gets to bathe in true adoration from a crowd of supporters (and some rubberneckers who have their opinions changed when faced the man behind the story).

Ultimately, Winnebago Man is a very loving tribute to the misfit that lives in all of us, that most of us are able to hide from the world, but sometimes escapes and becomes shared with a world who would sooner deride it than see themselves in it. It's a much better film than it has any right to be, and I would recommend you see it should you get the chance... you believe any of that shit?

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