In 1989, a man named Jack Rebney recorded a mundane promotional sales video for the Winnebago corporation. Iowa summers are hot and humid and thick with flies, and Rebney was having a real shitty time. Rebney is tall, mustachioed, and imposing: His presence is too big for the frame and the Winnebago. In magnificently profane outtakes from the two-week shoot, Rebney rails against the flies, the crew, the script, the heat, the big dumb 'bago, and himself. He is frustration personified, with the faintest edge of humor and charm keeping him just this side of pathetic.
In a time before the term "viral video" even existed, Rebney's outtakes went viral—found-footage nerds dubbing and trading battered VHS tapes of what they called "Winnebago Man" or "The Angriest Man in the World." There's something truly compelling about Rebney—his anger, the flies, and his careful, erudite, basso speech devolving into a volley of fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fucks. Then YouTube came along, and Rebney was screwed. Overnight, he wasn't a person anymore—he was a meme.
Ben Steinbauer was one of those pre-viral viral-video obsessives who had watched "Winnebago Man" hundreds of times. So he decided to track Rebney down and make a documentary, Winnebago Man, about the man he eventually found.
After breezing through a dull and perfunctory history of people being mean to other people on the internet, Steinbauer finally manages to find Rebney, now 76 and living in seclusion on top of a mountain. Then the film gets awesome. Steinbauer, as it turns out, lucked the fuck out—Rebney is a fascinating subject: bitter, frightened, humiliated, aggressive, vulnerable, kind, and relentlessly funny. He's bewildered and shamed by the internet, by his "fans"—"some kind of a dumb-fuck dog and pony show"—but he has lots to say to them (mostly angry things, mostly about Dick Cheney). He feels old.
In one scene, Steinbauer presses Rebney to discuss his childhood, his history, his love life. Rebney resists, clearly spooked. "You want to talk about me? Is that what you want?" he shouts. "Yes! I'm trying to talk about you!" Steinbauer responds, exasperated. "Well, I DON'T." We can't help but share Steinbauer's exasperation—after spending so much time watching Rebney (and the man is magnetic), it feels like we deserve to know everything about him for our own lurid amusement. (Or, on the flipside, to dehumanize the guy even more. "I don't want the reality of it," says one Rebney early adopter. "I want to see the buffoon.") But of course we don't. In this weird age of cruel, exhilarating, anonymous internet celebrity, it's easy to feel like complete strangers belong to us somehow. Rebney wants to make sure we fucking know he belongs to himself. The ending of Winnebago Man is sweet and shows that, maybe, he can do both.