With the onset of viral video comes a new and sometimes discomfiting age of accidental celebrity, where the stars of obscure clips suddenly become a workplace distraction for millions. In the past, such clips were circulated only as fast as eighth- or ninth-generation dubs could be produced, but now the collective response is instant, overwhelming, and perhaps a little dangerous. If you’re the “Star Wars kid” or the “‘Boom Goes The Dynamite’ guy” or the “‘Impossible Is Nothing’ video-résumé creator,” your endearing ineptitude has made a lot of people happy, while tainting you forever. Unlike with other celebrities, there’s no moving on to the next role. The choice is either to retreat from the spotlight, or become a performing monkey.
Jack Rebney, known alternately as “Winnebago Man” or “The Angriest Man In The World,” beat a path to reclusiveness even before the outtakes from his RV industrial video found their way onto YouTube. For years, found-footage connoisseurs wondered what happened to the spectacularly profane man who cursed his way through a grueling two-week promotional shoot for Winnebagos in 1989. After some investigation, young, ingratiating Winnebago Man director Ben Steinbauer located Rebney on a mountaintop in northern California, where he’d been living alone, only vaguely aware of his fame, and somewhat suspicious of it.
Saying more about Rebney’s state of mind would spoil the surprises that animate Winnebago Man, which is one of those thrilling instances where reality grabs a filmmaker by the lapels and drags him (and us) to unexpected places. Though Steinbauer is sometimes guilty of the glib Michael Moore-isms that dog many first-person documentaries—only Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March) seems to get the tone right—he and Rebney square off in a battle of wills that’s revealing of both men and of the irony-choked culture of viral phenomena. Steinbauer’s eagerness to draw information—and, let’s face it, exclusive new clips—out of his recalcitrant subject borders on exploitation at times, but the smart, cagey Rebney has an agenda of his own that Steinbauer can’t entirely control or define. The documentary gives him a forum to be his funny, irreducible self, which is a luxury the accidentally famous are rarely afforded.