Happy Accidents

That a car crash of a video shoot turned viral is only half the story. What a long strange trip it's been for 'Winnebago Man.'

Ben Steinbauer
Ben Steinbauer (Photo by John Anderson)

"Feeling caffeinated?"

These are the last words Ben Steinbauer says to me before clicking our two-way phone conversation over into three. These are not words to be taken lightly. I've seen enough footage of Jack Rebney – the so-called "Angriest Man in the World" –to know that he does not mince words or suffer fools gladly. He has an elegant touch with expletives and an enunciative, beautifully booming voice that commands a cowering authority.

So, yes, I'm nervous. I call on the meager skill set I've developed over the years to loosen up an interview subject – make the first pitch a softball – and ask him about that marvelous voice, whether he comes by it naturally or if it is the byproduct of his years as a newsman.

"No," he says drily. "Eva Perón was a nursemaid of mine."

I smile to myself. This is going to be fun.

Even without the bizarre twist of fate that made Jack Rebney a worshipful figure to millions of YouTube users –and we'll get to that in a minute –his has been a storied life. It's the kind that's easy to romanticize:those years in news, back when news carried significant gravitas; then a professional drift; and finally monkish isolation on a mountaintop in California, where he's settled for the past 15 years with his books, the authors of which – Aristophanes, Homer, and Hemingway – he speaks of as old friends.

But for those millions of YouTube users, Jack Rebney used to signify one thing: the man who made an art out of melting down. Flaming out. Cracking up on camera.

In the late Eighties, Rebney took a gig shooting an industrial video for Winnebago. His job? To sing the praises, in that mellifluent baritone of his, of the 1989 Itasca Sunflyer. Only filming took place in the high heat of summer, and an RV is not a particularly spacious place in which to shoot a video. Flies swarmed, Rebney couldn't remember his lines, and he had a testy relationship with the crew. From the looks of it, the shoot devolved into a swirling shitstorm, with Rebney its sputtering, swearing eye.

"My mind is just a piece of shit this morning," he spits after another flubbed line. "I don't even know what the fuck I'm saying." Not Rebney's finest hour, not by a long shot, and it was about to be immortalized.

The crew assembled the expletive-laden outtakes and put them on tape. Then they passed the tape around. The tape got dubbed and redubbed and redubbed once more as it moved, viruslike, into VCRs the country over, becoming a viral video before anybody knew to call it that.

And then the Internet happened. More specifically, the Internet happened to Jack Rebney.

The Internet also happened to the Star Wars Kid and Antoine Dodson and countless other accidental (and sometimes resistant) Web celebrities. Four years ago, Ben Steinbauer, an Austin-based filmmaker and then-lecturer at the University of Texas' Department of Radio-Television-Film, was a viral-video enthusiast. He would begin his production class with YouTube clips as a way into the lesson of the day, and the "Winnebago Man," as the Rebney tapes were shorthanded, got a lot of play. Over lunch recently, Steinbauer contextualized the moment.

"This was right around the same time that the Star Wars Kid was suing the parents of the kid that put that video up, and this idea of unintended celebrity was coming out, and cyberbullying – that term – was being defined. And I thought, this guy [Rebney] could be conceivably embarrassed of this, not be happy that it's out there, and I want to show him that he could find some satisfaction in it. That sounds so naive – and it is a little bit – but that was the initial impulse."

Steinbauer hired a private investigator – another Winnebago Man fan, it turns out –and eventually tracked Rebney down on top of that mountain in California. Steinbauer's relatively simple mission statement unraveled as he came to know Rebney, came to know firsthand his prickliness and reticence and exacting nature. And as Rebney tucked into another dressing-down of Steinbauer, the camera organically began to shift to a two-shot: the subject pulling the interviewer into the story, the interviewer becoming the story.

"I was never going to be a character in this," Steinbauer says. "I've made six other short documentaries, and I've never even used voiceover, let alone been in front of the camera."

But, in hindsight, at least, it seems inevitable. To ignore Steinbauer's part in the unfurling narrative would have missed the whole point. So the scope expanded to document Steinbauer, completely stymied and, just like his subject, lightly cracking up on camera.

The Angriest Man in the World begets the Filmmaker on the Knife's Edge of a Nervous Breakdown.

"When Ben and I first met," Rebney tells me, "and we began to talk in terms of the possibility of his making something – either a short film or a full-scale documentary and what have you – if you remember correctly, I looked at him blankly, as it were, and I say: 'What the hell are you talking about? For what? What are you going to find here?' It was totally beyond me. ...

Jack Rebney in the original outtakes
Jack Rebney in the original outtakes

"How many times did I tell Ben to get the hell out? ... That was absolutely meant precisely as I stated it. 'Don't like it? Get out.'"

But then something rather remarkable happened –to Steinbauer and Rebney both. As the men grew to know each other, Steinbauer found his film. Not the one he meant to make, but another one, a more personal film, and a more personally challenging one, too. And Rebney had ringside seats to the show. It seems that fact – the evolution of Steinbauer as a filmmaker – is the only point of interest for Rebney. When I ask him, as a onetime journalist with the power to shape content, control image, if it's been frustrating for him to have to cede that power, he replies, with his signature winding eloquence:

"I give you this caution: I couldn't care less. It is completely irrelevant to me what's happened with the outtakes or for that matter what happened in the film, with the exception of the fact that I finally found that Ben – and I can say this with impunity – I found that Ben began to recognize what he could do with the film. Because at the outset, he didn't have a clue."

Indeed, it's that cluelessness, that fumbling through the dark, that makes the film so winning.

"If I would have tried to make this happen," Steinbauer says, "if I had set out saying, 'I'm going to try to develop a relationship with this older person, and that's what the story will be about, and it'll be like a Tuesdays With Morrie crossed with Shit My Dad Says or something,' then it probably would be a lot more contrived and, I would hazard to guess, not as successful."

And here we arrive at the remarkable third act. Winnebago Man is only half the story. There is the movie, and then there is its afterlife, and the afterlife is just as surprising as the confluence of luck (good and bad), tenacity, and a no-net creative leap of faith that define the film.

Since Winnebago Man's world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2009, Rebney and Steinbauer have traveled the world together, promoting the film. There was the festival circuit and then this summer's theatrical release. They were feted at Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival (in an e-mail, Moore told me it was the funniest documentary he'd seen all year), endorsed by Roger Ebert (in the spirit of the film's foul-mouthedness, he tweeted, "Holy shit, is this a funny fucking documentary"). They've been guests at the U.S. Embassy in New Zealand and on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in July, where Reb­ney, not surprisingly, killed. (It reruns on NBC this Friday.) And in the course of these travels, the men have grown close. The documentarian's natural remove has been utterly stripped.

They have a rhythm with each other that feels familiar but not practiced. Over the phone, Rebney cuts off Steinbauer in midsentence:

"All you do is play golf," he grouses.

"One time I played golf," Steinbauer says. "One time. I'll never live it down."

Separately, I tell Steinbauer his public persona with Rebney, their timing, and their straight man/funny man rapport remind me of a kid who both indulges a crotchety grandfather and is awed by him.

"He and I talk on the phone every day and have for the last two years," Steinbauer says, "which is way more than I talk to my actual grandparents. ...

"It has become very sweet in a way that nobody could have predicted, I think. Certainly not me. I would guess not him either, because it was not sweet when we were actually filming."

And what of Rebney's take? Now in his 80s, his life has become a study in contrasts. On the one hand, in service of the film that he has gamely promoted, he has seen the world and interacted with youthful and engaged audiences, something which clearly gladdens him. On the other hand, always he returns to his mountain. At the time of filming, his sight was failing, but now he is totally blind, and – though still surrounded by his beloveds, Aristophanes, Homer, and Heming­way – he absorbs his books by audiotape. Indeed, when we have a spirited discussion about electronic media, it's obvious that the tactile quality of printed books has become all the more essential to him since he has lost the ability to enjoy it.

So, the adulation of the masses or the sanctuary of the mountain: Where is the Angriest Man in the World most at home?

"One has to make the presumption, ipso facto: I am where I am, then it must be that I wish to be here," he says. "I can't begin to tell you how much fun it's been, and hopefully it will continue to be fun, being at these showings, being at these openings, sharing the applause for Ben's film, understanding that we're touching people, that we're reaching them because they desperately need somebody to speak their language. It's a wonderfully gratifying feeling in that respect.

"If it had never happened, I would have never missed it."

And what does he think of the film itself, the one Steinbauer embarked upon with the hope of giving Rebney some "satisfaction"?

"It's a fine piece of film," Rebney says. "It's not Dr. Zhivago. But it's a fine piece of film."

I swear I can hear Steinbauer smiling over the telephone wires. "Thanks for clarifying."

Winnebago Man opens in Austin theatres this Friday. See Film Listings, for showtimes and review.

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Winnebago Man, Ben Steinbauer, Jack Rebney, The Angriest Man in the World, Roger Ebert, Michael Moore, viral video, The Star Wars Kid, Antoine Dodson

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