Winnebago Man (2009)

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I consider myself someone who is relatively well-versed in the layers of the internet, specifically that of viral superstars – basically people that rise to meteoric fame because of a video they appear in that gets a bunch of attention. Perhaps my favorite video on the internet is Winnebago Man – the endlessly entertaining odyssey that sees an RV salesman trying to create a commercial, but his extreme frustration create a series of hilarious outtakes that are some of the most brilliant moments in comedy history ever – and like the best comedy, it is entirely real and unscripted, and by complete accident. It was so wonderful to encounter the documentary made on the titular Winnebago Man, also known by his real name as Jack Rebney, one person I can confirm lives up to his nickname – The Angriest Man in the World.

However, this documentary doesn’t only shine a light on the incredibly funny story of the Winnebago Man, but also on the man himself – Rebney is, after all, a human being, and we see the trappings of what viral super-stardom does to an individual, and it serves as both a fascinating portrait of a strange man, but also a cautionary tale that these people that we laugh at on the internet have lives, and that we have to reflect on how our reactions to them actually effects them as people.

Ben Steinbauer tells the incredible story of Rebney, but does so in such a way that it feels like a legitimately cinematic documentary rather than a VH1 “where are they now?” kind of documentary special. Part of this is because of the incredible amounts of effort Steinbauer goes through to create this film – and while I won’t say that he is anywhere near the levels of Werner Herzog or Errol Morris, Steinbauer ensures that the titular figure is portrayed as perfectly three-dimensional, honest and real human being. Many documentaries tend to skew their subjects to appear a certain way – and that wouldn’t work here. It is important to remember that a documentary is one of the most manipulative forms of cinema – the filmmaker is presenting a real story, and is trying to make us believe something to be absolutely true. Steinbauer doesn’t need to use anything to change how we view this film – because the tone of the film is set by Rebney himself – honestly, Steinbauer goes through great efforts in the beginning of the film to make it interesting and through using every trick in the documentarian handbook does succeed – but he is given the ultimate gift of Jack Rebney, who is just absolutely perfect, and I think simply filming Rebney’s long diatribes would have resulted in an equally entertaining film – but Steinbauer works well with Rebney to make a beautifully strange and absolutely perfect film.

Rebney is just an absolute delight – I can’t remember any person being put on film being this hilarious and endearing. I must admit that I have a very special admiration for crotchety old men, and an entire documentary about an utterly angry and slightly crazy senior citizen who lives on the top of a mountain and spurts out an endless stream of philosophical malarkey is wonderful (it honestly felt like I was watching a warped version of Also sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche). The best part is that Rebney was not acting – he is truly this strange. However, it is easy to see Rebney as a crazy and angry old man – that was, after all, why he became a viral sensation, but what Steinbauer does particularly well is to show the humanity behind Rebney, who is presented as a man of many different colors – it is true that he is angry and bitter, but it is also important to note that he is a man with a past, and when Steinbauer explores Rebney’s history, including how he was an honest-to-god hardworking journalist forced into demeaning jobs, with inexperienced people, we as the audience begin to feel empathy for the man, who is actually far more than the foul-mouthed, furious salesman that we see on the internet and that we get so much pleasure out of laughing at.

The difference between Rebney and other viral superstars is that luckily Rebney wasn’t adversely affected from the internet stardom – it is true that he lost his job at Winnebago because of the outtakes, but that happened long before the clips began to spread. In fact, the documentary questions if Rebney even understood that he was a viral sensation – and the fact is that while we hear so many stories of internet sensations becoming suicidal or unhappy from their exposure to the rest of the world, it is clear that Rebney embraces his stardom – he just enjoys the attention it seems. It doesn’t mean that he is happy that he is the laughing-stock of the internet, but rather he just uses his bitterness to spread his own political views (which are far more bizarre than his rage that brought him fame). Rebney is just an absolute delight, and I am so glad that Steinbauer actually persevered to show us this strange but ultimately endearing man, because I can’t remember ever having been more entertained by a single person in a film.

Winnebago Man is an amazing documentary. Hilarious, truly informative and ultimately bittersweet, it is a documentary of epic proportions. Rebney gets a much-deserved second moment in the sun. It is just a brilliant documentary – and I suggest anyone who has enjoyed the original Winnebago Man videos should check this out – it is important that Rebney is given the opportunity to tell his story, and it also creates a fascinating history of the viral videos. I loved this, and it is definitely one of the better documentaries to cover stardom. It is just absolutely wonderful, and I can’t recall ever loving a documentary as much as I loved this.

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