In its uncovering of the apoplectic protagonist of a 20-year-old viral video, Winnebago Man ends up not meditating on 21st-century digital fame (a Douglas Rushkoff comparison to “Roman spectacle-torture” notwithstanding), but a semi-touching reaffirmation that everybody’s in showbiz, or will enter it if summoned. University of Texas film professor Ben Steinbauer, the documentary’s director, made a project of tracking down Jack Rebney, a grimacing RV salesman who became the unwitting star of the outtake reel, circulated via VHS dubs and then YouTube, of a 1989 Iowa-based industrial promo for Winnebago which he wrote and emceed. (Rebney’s cursing is nowhere as baroque as a gaggle of In the Loop characters’ or as lacerating as Joe Pesci’s, but he spits “My mind is just a piece of shit this morning!” with Middle-American, angry-grandpa aplomb.) At first daunted by the cultishly adored huckster’s cold cybertrail, Steinbauer locates “The World’s Angriest Man” living in solitude as a northern California fishing resort’s caretaker at age 76, seemingly serene and bemused by the Winnebago Man clips as an artifact of “the historicity of my youth [sic].”
Subsequent contacts between filmmaker and subject reveal this peace to be a calculated ruse; equally repulsed by and eager to exploit his infamy on “Fuckin’ Piece-o-Shit Tube,” Rebney pushes a manuscript of his personal manifesto (Jousting with the Myth) at Steinbauer and insists on confining his on-camera remarks to polemical rage vented upon Wal-Mart and Dick Cheney. As the drama heightens with the intercession of acute glaucoma, and the approach of Jack’s appearance at a found-footage film festival in San Francisco, Winnebago Man hits its stride simply because Rebney is a maddening, blustering, but vulnerable man who’d checked out of the helter-skelter of a career as a TV news producer, counting on becoming anonymous and forgotten, only to be given a chance to use his stentorian baritone and twinkling aggression in the public sphere once more. Steinbauer wises up and scales back his occasionally oppressive narration at the climax; as trivial as Jack Rebney’s golden moment is, the emotional chord struck by its final scenes echoes the redeemed-codger ending of A Christmas Carol.