Cult infamy and accidental celebrity take a turn under the microscope in Winnebago Man, an intriguing documentary from Ben Steinbauer that takes a look at Jack Rebney, the foulmouthed “star” of a viral sensation. Hired in the late 1980s to host a series of industrial videos for Winnebago’s RV campers, Rebney repeatedly lost his temper in the sweltering Iowa summer heat, and his crew — half out of irritation at his antics, half out of bemusement — left the camera rolling.
The outtakes became an underground sensation, traded around on VHS tapes, and, starting around 1995, became a huge hit on YouTube, generating millions of views worldwide. For his movie, Steinbauer tracks down the heretofore unexamined Rebney living in semi-seclusion in northern California, where he initially claims to know nothing of his strange demi-celebrity. Again given a stage, though, Rebney soon roars to life.
The original clips are funny because in them the savvy viewer recognizes, perhaps on a subliminal level, the public presentation of a very private anger (“Why don’t I say it fucking right? My mind is just a piece of shit!”). Steinbauer, though, never really seems to work up either a cogent thesis statement or tack of inquiry — his work bears the marks of a serial noodler. Early, promising strands seeming to offer some greater contextualization give way to little more than a travelogue, in which Steinbauer and a longtime friend of Rebney’s coax and cajole him into attending a special San Francisco festival screening of other video curios.
Even as Steinbauer becomes closer to his subject, and tries to inject biographical details of Rebney, the essence of the man remains curiously distant. Still, the emergent portrait is at least entertaining, offering a glimpse forward at the next generation of Andy Warhol’s famous assertion regarding fame, when one person’s 15 minutes can now become a frozen-in-time, perpetual humiliation — either good-naturedly owned, or forever an irritant. For more information, click here. (Kino, R, 85 minutes)