YouTube has a way of turning unsavory people into unwitting sensations (see: George "Macaca" Allen). One of the most unsavory YouTube stars is Jack Rebney, the Winnebago Man. In a series of fuzzy outtakes from a 1980s RV marketing film, he is seen delivering explosive, obscenity-laden tirades. Like many such clips, and like 21 seasons' worth of America's Funniest Home Videos, the Rebney scenes have a guileless comic charge that is undeniable.
Fascinated, the documentarian Ben Steinbauer decided to track down Rebney. The result of the quest is Winnebago Man, a skillful film, but also an unpleasant, glib one. It gestures at insight but mostly just condescends.
All these years later, Rebney is a caretaker at a remote fishing camp in Northern California. Now elderly and blind, he speaks in well-formed paragraphs. At first he is sweet and accommodating, but this is a ruse. Rebney is as angry as ever, and he is humiliated by his YouTube infamy -- even as he reveals, in remarks that aren't dwelled on, that he doesn't really understand what YouTube is. Steinbauer doesn't seem at pains to explain it to him, presumably because the film profits by making Rebney look as foolish as possible.
Rebney would like to air his cranky political views. Steinbauer takes that as license to further humiliate his subject in a series of awkward scenes, as when Rebney delivers an abortive message in front of a Walmart. Steinbauer's camera likewise dwells on Rebney's unpleasantness, his disability, his difficulty getting out of cars.
Steinbauer purports to show a valediction for Rebney at a presentation of the Found Footage Festival, the touring show in which unintentionally terrible video is screened and mocked. Rebney agrees to appear, and before the show, audience members hope for a meltdown. "The Internet is like the modern-day freak show," one says gleefully.
But Rebney is relatively restrained, even charming, and afterward, fans appear chastened. The message seems to be that once people see the real Rebney, they'll love him. But this is disingenuous, because the Rebney at the event little resembles the coarse man Steinbauer has filmed elsewhere.
Near the end, Steinbauer even spins some unconvincing pyschobabble about Rebney's popularity. "His swearing, ranting, unrestrained self somehow reminds us that we are not alone in our frustrations and blunders," Steinbauer says in a voiceover.
But of course that's not why the Winnebago Man clips are popular. They're popular because people like to watch other people being made fools of. That says something unpleasant about our capacity for cruelty, and I can imagine watching a fascinating documentary on that subject. Winnebago Man ain't it.