A film review by Craig J. Koban October 12, 2010


2010, R, 85 mins.


A documentary directed by Ben Steinbauer

"The Mini Winnie.....part of American tradition......and today, on the cutting edge of design and function, in a class C motor home........you believe any of that shit?"

- Jack Rebney during an outtakes reel for a Winnebago ad 

Do you remember the You Tube STAR WARS Kid?  

Just in case you were living under a rock, the video revolves around a young high schooler that secretly made a recording of himself acting like a Jedi whooshing around his golf ball retriever like it was a double-edge lightsaber.  The kid taped his segment over top of a portion of the school’s basketball game.  Unfortunately for him, the tape was discovered by a pesky schoolmate that then decided to put it online for the world to see and it became an Internet sensation.  As of 2010, the first copy of this video has been seen nearly 20 million times. 

Now…I am guilty as charged for laughing hysterically at this video when it launched, as most did.  However, Ben Steinbauer’s new documentary, THE WINNEBAGO MAN, points out some haunting truths that occurred during the aftermath of the video, like the fact that the kid suffered so much ridicule and bullying that he eventually went to a psychiatric hospital and that his family went through timely and costly legal proceedings against the parents of the kids that posted the video.  The term “cyber bullying” was coined just because of this case.  

I am not laughing anymore. 

Now, the reason I am prefacing my review of WINNEBAGO MAN with the story of the STAR WARS Kid is that it serves to reflect what Ben Steinbauer is doing with his film.  He too became completely obsessed with another viral video that’s not only been online for years, but also made the rounds on VHS copy after copy that has been passed down well before there even was an Internet.  The footage, which was shot in the late 80’s, has become so ostensibly popular that even members of the Hollywood elite humorously and lovingly revere it.  Yet, for as much as Steinbauer loved the video himself, he began to ask questions:  who was this guy that launched such a loyal Internet and video fanbase and what has become of him?  Did he end like the STAR WARS Kid so humiliated by the video that he wound up on a loony bin? 

The video in question features a man named Jack Rebney who, 21-years ago, was filming a Winnebago sales video.  Now, the video was shot – for inexplicable reasons – over a period of two weeks during one of the hottest and muggiest Texas summers and eventually saw the light of day as a finalized product to promote the 1989 Itasca Sunflyer motorhome.  Although the completed video was sent to Winnebago headquarters, an outtake reel was created (by parties never revealed) that highlighted all of Rebney’s hilarious, F-bomb riddled flubs.  Eventually, the tape was passed down to the hands of videotape collectors that in turn spawned an underground cult following for Mr. Rebney.  When someone decided to place the outtakes reel on You Tube it became an instant sensation and Rebney became one of the very first viral superstars.  He became dubbed by his fans as “The Winnebago Man” and, my favourite, the amusingly hyperbolic “The Angriest Man Alive.” 



I cannot emphasize how knee-slappingly uproarious this outtakes reel is, not to mention that it’s impossible to calculate the reel’s rabid and loyal fan base.  How popular is the video, you ask?  Let’s just say that Rebney has been quoted on TV and in films by the likes of Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck and that Conan O’Brien has listed Rebney's violently uttered profanity-laced diatribes as his favorite video of all time.  Hell, there is even a painting in the Dreamworks’ Animation Studio offices of Rebney…as Shrek.  

Yes…this guy is seriously popular. 

Yet, as beloved as Rebney’s colorfully literate usage of the English language and all related naughty slang was in the video, director Steinbauer could not help but wonder what became of him.  “I loved this clip,” he softly reflects in the film, “but I also felt bad for this guy.”  His obsession with the video – which he was introduced to back it its hazy VHS copy days – has not left the young and intrepid filmmaker, so WINNEBAGO MAN essentially reflects his multi-year quest to find out just where the hell – or as Rebney might utter – where the fuck did he end up 21-years after the outtakes reel surfaced.  Did he emerge as a scarred and bitter old coot because of his online fame or is he blissfully unaware of its existence or is he just dead? 

The search is not as easy as Steinbauer thinks it’ll be:  There is virtually nothing online in terms of information about Rebney, so he is forced to hire a detective to do more intensive research.  What he discovers is surprising: Rebney completely disappeared after the ad’s production and essentially became a ghost – he did not vote, has no property, no car registration, no fixed address…nadda – but he does a a long string of various P.O. boxes.  Realizing that he might be hitting rock bottom with his seemingly impossible task, Steinbauer sends letters to all of the box numbers…and waits.   

Then, one fateful day…Rebney calls him. 

Steinbauer learns that Rebney has become a hermit-like figure living on a mountain in Northern California as he works as the caretaker of a fishing resort.  He lives a life of complete, introverted solitude, only having a mangy dog (named Buddha) as his roommate.  Here’s the real kicker: when Steinbauer arrives at Rebney's dilapidated shack of a cabin he discovers – the horror! – that he is a fairly nice, mellow, soft-spoken, and uncharacteristically profanity-free elderly man (“It’s as if he spent the last 20-years meditating and drinking green tea,” the director humorously laments at one point).  Even more shocking is that Rebney appears to know nothing about his viral fame, which leaves the young director completely flabbergasted.  Steinbauer thanks Rebney for his time and leaves, feeling completely empty handed.  He was completely expecting a potty-mouthed curmudgeon and what he got was a respectably mannered and polite man that could have been his grandfather.  When he gets back home he feels his documentary has no purpose and nearly gives up. 

That is, however, until Rebney begins to unexpectedly call the filmmaker over and over and makes some rather startling revelations.  “The dumb-fuck, dog-and-pony show” – as Rebney might call it – is on. 

It would be borderline criminal of me to reveal – as many critics have remorselessly done in their reviews already – what happens in WINNEBAGO MAN next, mostly because part of the sheer pleasure of the doc is to see the completely unexpected trajectory Steinbauer takes with Rebney.  I will go as far as to say that Steinbauer’s motives may have initially been impure  (after all, he took a man that was essentially a joke online and wanted to render him as an even broader joke for the purposes of his documentary; after all, he was expecting Rebney to be a scenery chewing and anti-social man with an acid tongue) but what he gets – as does the audience – is something different altogether.  And what happens when he makes contact with Rebney after their first altercation is just the beginning of the film’s remarkable fascination with this compelling and contradictory man.  The film becomes oddly moving and touching, even if Steinbauer did not, at first, believe it would end up that way.   

Steinbauer, however, is no heel looking to cheaply exploit Rebney: his doc, especially mid-way through, genuinely wants to go away from simply just pointing a camera on this guy and allowing him to let his mouth run afoul and instead goes to great lengths to fully understand who Rebney has become in the aftermath of the 1989 Winnebago ad shoot.  Again, it’s the film’s journey that’s kind of uplifting and wholeheartedly transfixing, and despite all of Rebney’s motor-mouthed shenanigans in that video (which, I confess, makes me bust a gut every time I watch it) WINNEBAGO MAN has a thoughtful and meaningful agenda in the end: it points out how some innocent people (nay I say victims?) had their lives unpredictably exploited and humiliated for cheap laughs by an ravenous Internet culture that cares little about the essence of the subject matter.    

The STAR WARS Kid and the “Angriest Man Alive” are, after all, real flesh and blood people that deserve some understanding, but Steinbauer alludes to the fact – perhaps more fully with the former – that these people deserve some compassion and understanding from a computer-fixated culture that does not want to at times.  One anonymous man that Steinbauer interviews on a street corner is eerily prophetic:  “The Internet is like the freak shows of a hundred years ago, but now you don’t have to pay five cents to get in.”



WINNEBAGO MAN is the only film is the history of the medium to contain the line, "Fuck you, Buddha."  God bless you, Jack Rebney.  You are a maestro of words.

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