Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Jack Rebney: perhaps the only viral video star worthy of a documentary

The internet tubes are all but clogged with videos that spread about as though they were some sort of virus. Among the most popular are those that make us laugh, be they unfortunate accidents, miscalculations, outbursts, or unadulterated cuteness. The in-the-moment quality of the videos is what makes them work – they are a snapshot of a moment that likely couldn't be planned or replicated. They are honest. And importantly, they are brief. The background of the events or people involved in the average viral video would not be interesting enough for a half-hour television special, let alone a feature-length film.

The apparent exception to that rule, though, is Jack Rebney, the foul-mouthed star of one of the original viral videos, the “Winnebago Man.”

What is fascinating about the video, originally made in 1988, is that it was spliced together from outtakes of multiple day's worth of footage, before simple drag-and-drop non-linear editing systems were common. The effort to put together such a montage, especially one that has various themes at different points, and isn't merely a chronological account of everything that occurred on set, must have been a serious undertaking. Furthermore, the fact that the video survived for over a decade without the aid of the digital age, is telling: before sharing videos just took a couple of clicks at the keyboard, viral videos had to be dubbed and handed off friend to friend. Even as late as 1998, trading video tapes was still prevalent enough to warrant a lampooning skit on the final season of Mr. Show (first minute).

What has survived the years is a brief study of a man who is certainly temperamental, but not vindictive. While Rebney does direct some of the ire at his crew, most of it is meant only for him – he spends most of the time ridiculing himself, and, as we can see later in the video, it's frequently jovial. He spends at least an equal amount of time laughing and spitting out random consonants as he does cursing. Unlike Christian Bale's infamous rant that's pure vitriol, Rebney's taped struggles are not so much a dressing down of another as they are an internal struggle displayed publicly. That, I believe, is what originally gave the Winnebago Man legs, and helped it survive all of these years until it was able to reach a wider audience.

When it did, Rebney was a viral star. What makes him even more unique than being made a star almost 25 years after the fact is that he had secluded himself from society to such an extent, he didn't know he was famous. Given the amount of time, the nature and extent of the video, and the unlikely celebrity, Jack Rebney was the ideal candidate for a documentary. Winnebago Man, following rave reviews at SXSW, is on a limited tour of the US before an eventual DVD release. It opens in Minneapolis next week. If I don't make it out, I'm no better than the fly ruining a shot of the Itasca RV – a goddam jackass.

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