Winnebago Man: from YouTube Legend to Award Winning Documentary
Chances are, at some point during this week, you watched a YouTube clip. An eccentric woman on the local news. A clumsy reporter getting yelled at for destroying a one-of-a-kind work of art. Or even Antoine Dodson’s (now auto-tuned) thoughts on his sister’s would-be attacker.
That is the point of internet memes. They are pleasurable, plentiful, and digestible: they are here one week and then they are gone and forgotten.
Except when they are gone but not forgotten.
Such was the case of Jack Rebney, star of the film Winnebago Man, by Austin-based director Ben Steinbauer. Steinbauer, who recently appeared with Rebney on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to promote Winnebago Man, will be in Omaha for a special Film Streams screening of Winnebago Man on Saturday, September 25th (the film opens on Friday).
We interviewed Steinbauer about his motivation for making a film about the reclusive yet increasingly popular Rebney, working outside of the Hollywood system, and the support he’s received from independent film houses like Film Streams.
In Search of the Winnebago Man
Like millions of other YouTube users before him, Steinbauer came across the brief clip of Winnebago salesman Jack Rebney having what was seemingly the worst day of his life. He passed the clip among friends, noting Rebney’s obvious charisma, but "wasn’t interested in making a film about internet memes."
Yet, the director found himself returning to the concept of "unwanted celebrity" that underpins not only the YouTube Winnebago Man but many popular viral internet videos. A simple idea eventually grew into a full motion picture: "I wonder how the star of my favorite clip is dealing with this experience of being talked about in a negative light?"
From this jumping off point, Mr. Steinbauer began to research the man: "What started as a inquiry into this type of celebrity became a character study about a person caught in this position." He quickly discovered that, by all modern measures, Rebney simply didn’t want to be found.
To begin, Rebney is not the typical YouTube viral star. Unlike the countless extroverts who court attention but lack self-awareness, and find fame despite themselves, Rebney is not without guile. While his sailor’s mouth leaves no swear unfound, his pathos is incisive, insightful, and oddly endearing: he’s in on the joke the entire time.
After all, what’s funnier than an angry Winnebago salesman?
Yet, the YouTube video, dubbed from a VHS cassette that had attained near legendary status among industry insiders, was not part of Rebney’s plan. He long ago moved to a remote mountain cabin in Northern California. The more Mr. Steinbauer researched his unique situation, the more he felt committed to letting him know that "this clip had caused a lot of joy."
Much of the film—which, full disclosure, I have not yet seen—centers on Steinbauer’s evolving relationship with Rebney. Like many people, Steinbauer found himself speaking of Rebney like he was some long lost family member. In him, people see a domineering father, a firebrand uncle, a chiding brother. "[People] equate him with the most intimate relationships they have."
And unlike the other examples of unchecked vitriol so common the internet—Mr. Steinbauer offered up the famous rants of Christian Bale and Mel Gibson as examples—Rebney succeeds because "the clips showcase that he is someone that is existentially commenting on his own performance…he’s failing and he let’s us know that he’s failing." Winnebago Man is as subtly self-deprecating as most internet memes are bombastically self-serving.
The Support of the Independent Film Community
With Jack Rebney, Winnebago Man the YouTube clip would not exist. Without Ben Steinbauer, Winnebago Man the film would not exist. And without the support of independent film houses across the country, the film, and others like it, would not be possible. As Mr. Steinbauer says:
Right now is a time when independent films and documentaries in particular are being supported less and less…there are fewer and fewer theaters willing to extend that support. I can’t say enough good things about Film Streams, the Austin Film Society, and institutions like them.
He reiterated that what makes Austin such an interesting place to make films is "a sense of community." The same could be said of Omaha, where the film community has lead to such recent successes as the Omaha Film Festival and the Local Filmmaker’s Showcase. Mr. Steinbauer continues: "You have a lot of cross fertilization [in the Austin film community]…You get this weird sort of blending of talent that I’m not sure you get in New York or LA."
Could Omaha be the next Austin?
Is it so hard to imagine that our burgeoning film community could produce documentarians on the level of Mr. Steinbauer (himself a graduate of nearby Kansas University)?
I don’t think it is.
And is it so hard to imagine that the wide open spaces of West Omaha could produce the next Jack Rebney?