by Richard von Busack
As the poem has it, why should not old men be mad? Jack Rebney, star of Ben Steinbauer’s wrath-of-a-salesman documentary Winnebago Man, (playing at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater Aug 27-Sep 2) became a viral celebrity. This Dabney Coleman lookalike’s expletive-laced mid-1980s meltdown during the making of an industrial film was circulated on YouTube, as well as through the Found Footage Film Festival in years past.
Personally, I don’t get the cult. “Memorial Day 2000,” a Michigan bacchanal retrieved by the FFFF, was far more fascinating as a portrait of rural America heading down the vortex. Where are its insanely devoted fans of that short? And I’ve heard bootleg recordings of some celebrated names (such as Martin and Lewis and Orson Welles) swearing their heads off beautifully during the making of commercials. Rebney’s fountain of obscenities seemed more desperate, more sad. I felt rather sorry for the man. I felt worse when we learn that he lost his job because of his outbursts during the making of an industrial film selling Winnebagos.
A man like Rebney needed Werner Herzog. He got Steinbauer, a persistent but affable film teacher from Austin. The director tracks Rebney to his new life as a resort caretaker near Mt. Shasta. That a man would live alone in such surroundings—a paradise except for the bears, forest fires and meth heads… it all seems strange to Steinbauer. See what I mean about Herzog?
Rebney is justifiably suspicious of his fan base; he thinks of the Internet as an abomination, and he has to be coaxed back to the camera. But there’s a part of him that wants to unfold his mind to an audience.
Clearly Rebney is a victim of alterna-culture’s endless, bootless search for authenticity. The ending goes warm and fuzzy; the so-called “Winnebago Man” is surrounded by genuine fans at the Red Vic Theater in San Francisco). Rebney’s reluctance to be a star gives Winnebago Man as much tension as it has. Still you can see places where the movie is slipping through the director’s hands, as when Steinbauer is reduced to filming the flowers on the wall of the Super 8 motel in Redding.
Is Rebney really a puzzle? Yeats answers his own question about why old men rave: “No single story would they find/Of an unbroken happy mind/A finish worthy of the start.” Gebney’s career in broadcasting, which he left behind (a story Steinbauer can’t or won’t explore), his withdrawal from the world, and his unquenchable longing to say something meaningful even as his body starts to fail him, makes him an interesting figure. But the man himself has a clue why his rampage is so popular: “It’s disastrous that we don’t say what we really feel.” Therein lies the appeal of Rebney’s Winnebago-induced fury, as well as its essential sadness.