Monday, September 27, 2010

Winnebago Man: finding some meaning in the meaningless world of Internet stardom

Jack Rebney became an unwitting star when a now-22-year-old montage of outtakes found its way onto Youtube in 2005. The creatively profane outbursts resonated with a nascent online audience that was far from discovering how it would interact with the media it absorbed. The “angriest man in the world” was fascinating, the sales video for motorized homes that was the source of the outtakes had never been seen. Nobody seemed to know anything about Jack Rebney, and he never came forward to respond to the video. People sort of assumed he was dead.

Austin filmmaker Ben Steinbauer was intrigued by the mythos of Rebney, and wanted to find out definitively whether he was still alive, and if so, who he really was. The result was the 2009 award-winning documentary Winnebago Man, which is currently in a limited theatrical release. Without spoiling too much in this review, Rebney is alive, and is as cantankerous as ever.

What makes Winnebago Man such an intriguing film, aside from the no-nonsense attitude and blunt wit of its titular star, is that it helps personify the effects overnight internet stardom can have. Steinbauer spends part of the film recounting the story of “Star Wars kid” Ghyslain Raza, and briefly interviews “Impossible is nothing” video resume star Aleksey Vayner. Raza spent time under psychiatric care in the aftermath of his fame, and Vayner claims he’s been able to accept his notoriety in all its forms, even as parodied by Michael Cera.

Although it feels like Steinbauer went easy on Vayner, he challenges Rebney on how he perceives his fame and what he thinks can or cannot be accomplished by it. To Steinbauer’s credit, it’s pretty clear he didn’t set out to be a character in the story, but when it became inevitable after Rebney began interacting with him, he does so with restraint. The conclusion that Rebney ultimately reaches is his own. The journey of his reaching that conclusion is as much fun as the viral promises, as well as surprisingly heartfelt, and highly recommended for anyone that has ever wondered what happens to the subjects in viral videos after the browser window closes.

TOO MUCH: Footage of Rebney’s buddy hiking and sipping wine.

COULD HAVE USED MORE: discussion of how the web is affecting media and how we all consume it, which is touched on in the beginning of the film.

FILM SNOB NOTE: The finished Winnebago sales video that Rebney was producing has been virtually unseen by anyone as Rebney was fired after filming completed. Steinbauer told me after the Minneapolis premiere* that it is immensely impressive for a sales video, and will be a bonus feature on the DVD.

IHYFM RATING: FOUR AND A HALF out of FIVE MEHs. It’s not a perfect or flashy film, but has an understated poignancy and is a fascinating look at an intelligent, complicated, and unwilling minor celebrity. Winnebago Man, and I suspect The Social Network, will be required viewing for anyone wanting to reflect on how the web has impacted the way we interact with one another.

IF YOU SAID THIS WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE, I’D THINK: You’re not a “goddam jackass.”

*Two Hunter S. Thompson-esqe friends and I attended the Minneapolis premiere, which was hosted by Steinbauer and the crew of the original sales video. Although they had not been to other screenings, they said it was appropriate as the viral was shot in Iowa and Rebney is a Minneapolis native. Although he was not in attendance, Steinbauer held a microphone to his cell and called Rebney, whom Steinbauer said he speaks with almost daily.

- As an owner of an American bulldog, “not a ‘pitbull,’” Rebney stated even though he’s legally blind, he’s 6’5, 230lbs, and would love to fight Michael Vick (even though he couldn’t recall Vick’s name).

- Rebney’s dissatisfaction with the Bush administration is well-documented in the film; when asked what he thought of the Obama administration, he said he thought the healthcare reform was a perfect example of good intentions being channeled to the wrong priorities.

- I managed to get in the last question of the night. Rebney is a veteran of CBS News who idolized the likes of Cronkite and Murrow. I asked whether he thought there was any hope for the present 24-hour news culture, he concluded, after a long diatribe, that the best hope for political discourse was for young people to abandon the traditional political parties and start something for ourselves. There you have it, Generation Me: the Angriest Man Alive wants us to get off our asses and do something for ourselves.

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