Winnebago Man (documentary)

At first glance, “Winnebago Man” seems to be based on the thinnest of premises: What if we found one of the poor souls whose embarrassing moments have made him a YouTube celebrity and learned more about him? Yet what sounds like a silly lark that’s better suited for a brief “Daily Show” segment turns out to be a hilarious and surprisingly touching profile of a fascinating character, as well as an examination of society’s love/hate relationship with celebrities.

The man in question is Jack Rebney, whose uproariously profane outtakes from a 1989 Winnebago sales video have been making the rounds for almost two decades, first on copied VHS tapes and now on YouTube. Here’s a compilation, but beware: He swears A LOT.

These outtakes have been watched millions of times by hundreds of thousands of people, but Ben Steinbauer, a University of Texas film instructor, got to wondering: Who is this guy? What ever became of him? Does he even know how famous he is?

“Winnebago Man” chronicles Steinbauer’s attempts to find Rebney and, after doing so, to convince him to risk further ridicule by being the subject of a documentary. Much of the film’s abundant pleasure lies in taking the journey with Steinbauer (an affable, clean-cut 30-year-old), in learning things when he does, and in seeing his befuddlement as he deals with Rebney, so I won’t reveal too much about what he finds. But here are some tidbits.

When Steinbauer locates him, Rebney is living a peaceful, Walden-like existence on a mountain in Northern California, working as a caretaker and enjoying his solitude. Though you might expect otherwise from a man most famous for his use of swear words, Rebney is highly intelligent, even pompous, using words like “effectuate” and “nextly” as he holds forth verbosely on all manner of subjects. He has disdain for the shallow frivolity of modern American culture (you should hear him say the words “Wal-Mart” and “YouTube”), and he especially hates Dick Cheney. He’s prickly about random things, easygoing and pleasant about others. He’s calm but easily enraged. He writes angry manifestos, but he has a dog named Buddha.

Rebney’s Winnebago outtakes have long been a popular part of the Found Footage Festival, a raucous celebration of irony that tours the country playing a program of videotaped oddities. YouTube now serves essentially the same function, but the FFF is still around, and “Winnebago Man” shows Steinbauer trying to get Rebney to make a personal appearance at one of the events. Rebney is reluctant. These hipsters are only going to make fun of him some more, aren’t they? Isn’t he just a target of mockery now?

I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself. Suffice it to say that whatever preconceived notions you have, forget ’em. Jack Rebney proves to be a complex, larger-than-life person whose whole existence cannot, as it turns out, be encapsulated in one video shot on a very bad day 20 years ago. Steinbauer, making his feature debut after some award-winning shorts, choice to make a first-person documentary — the kind where the filmmaker’s attempt to make the film is part of the story, too — is a wise one. The false starts and setbacks, and Steinbauer’s own shifting perceptions of who Rebney is, are all part of Rebney’s shot at redemption.

In the Internet age, when anyone can become a “celebrity” simply by doing something foolish while a camera is rolling, it’s refreshing to be reminded of our shared humanity. That might sound a little high-minded for a documentary about the guy who swears at Winnebagos, but that’s exactly the point: He’s not just that guy, not any more than any of us are defined by just one thing. The Internet gives us a safe distance from which to laugh at people, and goodness knows I take advantage of that every day. But “Winnebago Man” closes the distance a little … just a little … and shows how much more rewarding it is to learn the story behind the legend.

B+ (1 hr., 22 min.; Not Rated, probably R for pervasive harsh profanity.)