Any documentary filmmaker will tell you that they start with a premise but really have no idea where their story will take them.
Winnebago Man was born out of the YouTube fascination with a video cassette of outtakes that had been circulated over the years, to the point of urban legend. The outtakes were clandestinely assembled from an industrial commercial shoot for Winnebago motor homes. Their hired pitch man, Jack Rebney, struggled mightily through a hot shooting week in Iowa in 1989, abusing four letter words like a sailor in a whorehouse.
The tape was assembled and handed off between friends and colleagues as a kind of payback from the crew who had to suffer through the long shoot days, enduring Jack’s temper and endless stream of profanities.
But then it took on a life of its own and went, to use a word that has now come to define this type of phenomenon, “viral.”
A very compelling aspect of Winnebago Man is the examination of how YouTube has made infamous “celebrities” out of everyday folk, usually with one common denominator marking their ascension: humiliation.
What the filmmaker learned once he chose to look deeper than the inherent comedy of the outtakes tape, is that Rebney was not just a Winnebago pitch man but really an exiled old-school news man, a devotee of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
So the notoriety achieved by being labeled “the angriest man in the world” was never what poor Jack Rebney had in mind for his lasting legacy.
And that is ultimately the conflict of the film. Director Ben Steinbauer’s desire to get the aging, near-blind recluse to embrace his celebrity status, and Rebney wanting an audience based on his intellect rather than his foul-mouthed temper.
“Will you do me a kindness?” Rebney feebly requests of one of his young production assistants at the tail end of one of his epic rants. “I don’t want anymore bullshit out of anyone for the rest of the day. Including me!”
Like most good documentaries, the affection for the focal point is evident and it gains momentum beautifully. Rebney learns a valuable lesson about not only himself but his fellow man, and the viewer benefits from both.