Alex Wright

Winnebago Man

October 22, 2011

Winnebago Man On a Friday night Netflix whim, we punched up Winnebago Man, Ben Steinbauer's 2010 documentary about Jack Rebney, the famously pissed-off RV spokesman whose outtake reel attracted a devoted underground following among the film school set and, more recently, across the Intertubes.

What seems like a thin premise for a documentary - tracking down the real life Rebney, twenty years on - turns out to be a surprisingly engaging journey into one man's search for authenticity.

When Steinbauer eventually finds Rebney - living far off the grid in a mobile home near the foot of Mount Shasta - the old man presents himself as a kind of forest yogi, leading a simple life with his dog named Buddha and speaking in tranquil, reflective tones as he looks back with bemused detachment on his former self.

Ben goes away disappointed, wondering whether the oddball character he had hoped to find was just a phantom of his YouTube-fueled imagination.

Just when the film seems on the verge or petering out, it takes a refreshing turn for the weird. Jack calls back to make a confession: he was faking the whole peace-and-love bit. The real Rebney, as it turns out, is every bit the crochety old sonofabitch that Steinbauer imagined. Ben returns to get the real story, and Jack in turn sets out to make his would-be biographer's task close to impossible. As Jack gets more and more difficult, the movie gets better and better.

There's a Buddhist saying that if one wants to progress quickly on the spiritual path, it's best to study with a wrathful master. Steinbauer seems to have found the perfect teacher in Rebney, whose initial attempt at projecting a Yoda-like facade of peace and calm stands in sharp contrast to the authentic pain-in-the-ass that manifests in the second half of the film.

When the story culminates with Rebney making an appearance at a film screening in San Francisco, he rises to the occasion. Bantering with the crowd, he comes across as endearingly pissed-off, like everyone's cranky grandfather. He seems to have found a way to befriend his anger, not by suppressing it but by inhabiting it fully, and inviting everyone to enjoy the spectacle. And the crowd loves him for it.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's once suggested that the sure sign of realization is the willingness to make a fully display of one's neuroses. By that standard, the Winnebago Man may just be a true yogi after all.

And now, a word from Jack:

Previously: A Week in Mailer Country

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