The lesson filmmaker Ben Steinbauer learned by making WINNEBAGO MAN was that the smartest thing he could could do was follow where the story leads. It’s a great story, and Jack Rebney, whose outtakes of his very bad day as a Winnebago pitchman became must-see YouTube, one of the great documentary subjects. All preconceived notions and plans to keep himself out of the action flew by the wayside as Steinbauer tracked the cult figure down and then, not without some trepidation, surrendered to making the film on Jack’s terms.
The result is a smart consideration of the media, but more, it’s a compelling portrait of the man U-Tube viewers thought they knew. When I spoke with them both on July 14, 2010, Rebney was wry and thoughtful, expressing strong opinions on everything from his Jesuit education to the current state of American politics. Steinbauer, as in the film, gamely and very willingly tried to keep up with where Rebney led, while simultaneously waxing rhapsodical about the pleasure of calling such a large personality a friend.
The documentary tracks his search and subsequent relationship with Rebney, whose angry outbursts during the making of an industrial film for Winnegabo made him a cult favorite among those who passed around the bootleg tapes of the shoot‘s outtakes. Rebney became iconic for film industry folk, even garnering a painting at Dreamworks Animation that depicts him as Shrek. Eventually and perhaps inevitably, the tapes found a home and an enormous fan base on YouTube. Rebney-isms turned up everywhere, and while the audience for the video clips grew, Rebney had since disappeared, assumed by many to have died long ago from a heart attack. Steinbauer, like so many others, was fascinated by Rebney and, with the help of a private investigator, did the impossible. He found him living alone on a mountain top, and, even more remarkably, convinced him to take part in the documentary. In the course of the film, issues of ethics, veracity, and group psychology of U-Tube and its users are considered, but mostly it’s a look at their budding relationship, and of a man who has gone his own way and whose fame late in life came as a complete surprise. Steinbauer explained his own fascination with Rebney’s rant as the liberation of unrestrained anger, one he shared with first dates and his grandmother, and his film does more than share that aspect of Rebney, it also presents a portrait of a man who has chosen to live life on his own terms.