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A YouTube icon faces his audience
by Jason Blair
WINNEBAGO MAN: Directed by Ben Steinbauer. Written by Steinbauer and Michael Pullinger. Cinematography, Bradley Beesley and Berndt Mader. Music, Lyman Hardy, Andrew Hoke and Taylor Holland. Starring Jack Rebney and Ben Steinbauer. Kino International, 2010. R. 83 minutes.
By now, America’s Funniest Home Videos is something of a television afterthought, a show regarded largely as an incubator for stand-up comics and the go-to TV show for zany videos about cats. But the debut of AFHV 20 years ago breathed new life into more than television ratings. The show introduced the experience of schadenfreude — taking joy in the misfortune of others — to the world in a way it hadn’t known before. The viewing public, en masse and at a regularly scheduled time, could now watch their brethren suffer all manner of physical indignity without a sense of voyeurism, given that the “victims” submitted content for the show. AFHV held sway until YouTube, the arrival of which changed everything. YouTube is schadenfreude unleashed, a site to which anyone can upload or be uploaded, and Winnebago Man is a modest attempt to examine the phenomenon of unwanted celebrity.
If you’re asking yourself who Winnebago Man is, consider yourself among an almost ecclesiastical minority. In one of the most-viewed clips on YouTube, a Winnebago pitchman swears and shouts through a series of promotional videos. The videos, which viewers claim have a narcotic, even therapeutic effect, made a minor celebrity of the deranged pitchman who, when not referred to as the “Angriest Man in the World,” goes by the name Jack Rebney. If you’re asking yourself why someone would bother to make a film about the kickings and screamings of a man from 20 years ago, consider that this question is raised in Winnebago Man, most often by the filmmaker himself. It’s the supportive and inquisitive nature of director Ben Steinbauer that keeps Winnebago Man from crashing, even if the film falls short of any serious investigation into internet culture or Rebney’s place in it.
What Winnebago Man does provide is a very large heart, or at least a great deal of patience, primarily on behalf of Steinbauer but also by the crew of the original Winnebago shoot (recruited to reminisce about the infamous footage). What’s clear is that during the intervening years, very little by way of decorum has crept in Rebney’s life; he’s still an irascible, if surprisingly intelligent, misanthropic sort. While Winnebago Man is at its best when Rebney muses on the irony of his fame — his celebrity is the result of something he disdains, which is the internet — those musings are all too infrequent and don’t lead anywhere complicated or unusual. Winnebago Man is best enjoyed as a light romp with a refreshing lack of exploitation, a small miracle considering the ability of its subject to present himself as a wingnut.
Winnebago Man opens Friday, Aug. 13, at the Bijou.