Rooftop Films @ SXSW: Winnebago Man

Mark Elijah Rosenberg is the Founder and Artistic Director of Rooftop Films; look for film reviews from him and the rest of the Rooftop crew throughout the week!

Jack Rebney. The World’s Angriest Man. A middle aged Winnebago salesman going nuts. You’ve all seen the clip. We even showed it at Rooftop Films as part of the Found Footage Fest.

You’d think by now Rebney would’ve climbed into a tower and capped a few folks, or parlayed his internet infamy into a short-lived late-night cable show, or at least sold his cussing clips as cell phone ring tones or something. But in fact, no one has heard a peep from him — not even those who’ve tried to find him. Until now.

Filmmaker (and Rooftop alum) Ben Steinbauer hires a private detective, who scours a long list of address changes and misdirections, and successfully tracks down this icon of foul-mouthed freakouts. Turns out, he’s living peacefully alone in the woods, more J.D. Salinger than Ted Kaczynski. With his very proper tone and distant attitude, Rebney views his own infamy with bemusement and wonder. Weird.

Indeed. Steinbauer leaves Rebney alone, and thinks his film will go nowhere. But suddenly the Jack Rebney we’d all expect bursts out, ranting and raving about the stupidity of contemporary culture. Curiously, in all of Jack’s complaining, he rarely addresses any of his own hurt feelings. Is he suppressing them? Or is he really such an egomaniac that everything pisses him off, whether it’s about himself or Dick Cheney.

Steinbauer works hard to discover and reveal the “real” Jack Rebney, and tries to lead Jack to discover himself. It’s an interesting question as to whether it’s possible to discover a “real self,” for Jack or anyone in this media-saturated self-referential world. Rebney is a particularly difficult subject to cover, because he’s very moody, a little confused, and unprepared for this next round of attention, but the film crafts a dynamic and nuanced character. Jack tries to use this new platform for his own political and personal advantage, but he is repeatedly stymied, often by his own internal conflicts.

It’s amazingly poignant that given this new opportunity, Rebney again finds himself unable to speak clearly. Ands so he goes back and forth, cooperating one minute and cursing the next. When someone changes their mind and mood as frequently as Jack does, it’s difficult to craft the character, but this film does it well. His frustration and failures are ultimately what redeem him, and what redeems others in his estimation. His ups and downs, his changes of heart, his inability to find what he wants (until the ending…maybe), make him a fascinating character, and makes the film a real journey for the viewer. The glorious climax of the film, when Jack encounters his YouTube public face to face, is mindblowingly meta, yet heartwarmingly humble.

This form of fame, this contemporary culture, they can be brutal and cruel. But it’s what we’ve got. Humans created it, so it contains humanity (by which I mean empathy, competition, kindness, etc.). All one can do is accept our culture, shape it when and where you can, try to understand people as both symbols and as individuals, embrace the humor while acknowledging the suffering, and “goddamn son of a bitch, fuck, oh fuck, shit,” that’s life. Winnebago Man is a funny, intelligent, and inspiring slice.

Read an interview with Steinbauer here.