It's not exactly news that the fame offered by viral videos on YouTube is a double-edged sword. Just ask Basil Marceaux. There's a fine line between identifying with someone else's pain or anger and laughing with them and the kind of schadenfreude to which celebrities like Amy Winehouse and Lindsay Lohan are subjected. Winnebago Man, a hilarious and troubling portrait of viral video celebrity Jack Rebney, explores this line. Its biggest accomplishment may be making a cheerful, optimistic film about a guy who's most renowned for his fury.
Director Ben Steinbauer became obsessed by notorious videos of the apoplectic Rebney blowing his lines and spewing curses while shooting an industrial film about the wonders of recreational vehicles. (Imagine a back-slapping car-commercial pitchman periodically possessed by the psycho drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket. That's Rebney, the RV R. Lee Ermey.) The videos were bootlegged, shown at festivals and passed all over the country like a secret handshake among collectors of video exotica — but how did the phenomenon start?
Trying to trace the videos' origins, Steinbauer uncovers few clues at first. But he does manage to track down the film crew who shot and edited them. He discovers that they did so as an act of revenge against Rebney, whom they found obnoxious. It's harder to track down Rebney himself, but Steinbauer plays gumshoe and eventually travels to his rural California home. He finds an elderly man seemingly at peace with life — if anything, this segment of Winnebago Man is noteworthy for its lack of profanity. Upon returning home to Austin, however, the director learns that this isn't the whole story about Rebney.
As critic J. Hoberman observed, it would have been impossible to make a feature-length film about Rebney if he really were the nice old gent he appears to be. Indeed, Winnebago Man has more than its share of twists. Under the surface, it's as much about Steinbauer's quest to make an interesting film as it is about Rebney's life. Why else would Steinbauer keep a video camera rolling in case Rebney calls?
The director's true subject, however, is the great American love of subcultures. Thanks to YouTube and file-sharing, millions of viral video fans spend hours every day curating clip reels of the lives of others, tending niches of interest like bonsai trees. Eventually, the film shows a capacity crowd of these fans turning up at San Francisco's Red Vic theater for a "found footage film festival" — the same one that recently played The Belcourt — with Rebney's clips included. Even Rebney is impressed by this audience.
One learns a lot about Rebney from watching Winnebago Man, but Steinbauer himself remains something of an enigma. One thing is clear: All he wants to do is make Rebney happy and complete his documentary. The most compelling parts of Winnebago Man place the two goals in conflict. While Steinbauer's film is extremely entertaining, its insights into celebrity culture make you shudder as you laugh. It takes a lot of work to engineer a redemptive arc for the guy who's been called "the angriest man in the world."
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