In 1989, flustered by a difficult shoot for a Winnebago sales video (in particular by the short temper of Jack Rebney, its Major Dad looking star), vengeful crew members compiled highlights of Rebney at his pissiest: Between-take outbursts at the crew, at flies and mostly at himself and the pretension of the script he wrote. The hilarious video inevitably leaked, and managed to survive through the era of VHS tapes into the age of YouTube. But even as his one-liners wound up in Ben Affleck movies, Rebney remained oblivious of his cult stardom.
Which leads us to an interesting question: What happens to people after they’ve become Internet celebs? What are the obligations of the YouTubing audience to the civilians we’ve thrust fame upon?
Ben Steinbauer’s doc Winnebago Man, which seeks out and locates the elusive Rebney, is quick to point out that some, notably “Stars Wars kid,” do not take well to unwanted fame. And it’s a safe bet that a champion swearer like Rebney (predictably now a cranky old hermit) isn’t exactly happy that millions of chuckleheads have cackled at his antics. Steinbauer is all but walking into a trap: Will his presence help Rebney by giving him one more chance to say something other than profanities, or exploit him and make things worse?
That’s also a good question, particularly because Steinbauer doesn’t appear to know what he’s doing. He comes off as a nice kid, wishing no harm upon his subject, who got a terrific idea for a documentary but neglected to think through the ethics of his project or what he’d do after meeting his subject. Rebney takes well to the director, but refuses to play ball with his admittedly inane ideas. Steinbauer suggests more YouTube videos or talking about his life; Rebney wants to offer his thoughts on Dick Cheney.
Like too many documentarians, Steinbauer inserts himself far too much into a film that shouldn’t be about him—a state not helped by his distractingly naive demeanor and habit for banal on-soundtrack pontifications. Thing is, Winnebago Man does turn out to be about Steinbauer, quite accidentally, and it becomes unexpectedly thrilling because he’s a guy of average intelligence in way over his head. Although nowhere near as trenchant as My Kid Could Paint That, whose director found himself in a similar ethical pickle, Winnebago Man is more than the mere questionable gimmick as it appears to have began.