One of the unintended consequences of the internet age is the popular explosion of viral videos: incongruous digital snipets of random people, animals or things performing in strange, bizarre or amusing ways. Jack Rebney became an internet sensation several years ago when someone posted the outtakes of a 1989 Winnebago promotional video on You Tube. Rebney, who worked as the spokesman for the company, treated viewers with one profanity laced diatribe after another. He complained about the heat, the flies, the crew, the lights and, most amusingly, his own inability to remember his lines. Anyone who has seen the “Angriest RV Salesman in the World” or, more simply, the “Winnebago Man” can relate in some way to Rebney’s gradual mental and emotional disintergration in the face of frustration and stress.
Filmmaker Ben Steinbauer became obsessed with the man, wondering what his story was and what happened to him. With little thought about why it would be interesting to anyone other than Jack Rebney’s “fans,” Steinbauer embarked on a journey to find the man and tell his story.
This could have been interesting device to explore the effects of internet celebrity on ordinary people. Instead we get a movie that flounders around for an hour and a half giving us little insight into the man or the phenomenon. Sure, talking to the crew members we learn some of the specifics of the shoot and Rebney talks a little about his days working for CBS, but there is little else. Rebney pointedly refuses to talk about his past or his family and categorically refuses to entertain the idea that his viral video has any importance to him or anyone else. OK, so what then is the point of any of this? We learn nothing about the man (who may or may not be worth learning about) and, as far as we can tell, the video does not seem to have had any effect on his life.
We know there are plenty of people who have had their lives turned upside down by viral videos. I’m not talking about people who intentionally tape themselves and upload the tape to You Tube expressly for self-promotion, like lip synching and dancing to obscure (though absurdly catchy) Moldovan pop songs or doing stupid things with the intention of becoming the next Jackass. (What kind of world do we live in where Johnny Knoxville is a role model?) I’m referring to those who have tapes of them doing embarrassing things leaked onto the internet by malicious people for no other reason but to humiliate them. Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart has become a master of this ploy, just look at his heavily edited and patently dishonest ACORN or Shirley Sherrod videos intended to publicly delegitimize them. Clearly this phenomenon is much bigger than Steinbauer’s juvenile obsession with Rebney. Thinking about it this way piqued my curiosity and suggested another course Steinbauer could have (and probably should have) gone.
Once it became clear that Rebney wasn’t going to open up, that he wasn’t willing to share some unbelievable or moving story but would instead yell and curse just like he did in the 1989 video, Steinbauer had two choices: plug ahead with his idea of profiling a man who doesn’t want to be profiled or change the focus away from Rebney and on to this phenomenon of unwanted (or at least unsolicited) internet celebrity. Steinbauer chose the former to the detriment of the film. The stories of Ghyslain Raza and Aleksy Veyner, both mentioned by Steinbauer, are perfect cases of what I am talking about. Raza gained unwanted and humiliating notoriety when fellow students uploaded the tape of him performing awkward Star Wars light-saber moves. And Mr. Impossible Is Nothing Veyner put together a resume video that was, at best, ill-advised and an employee at a finance company Veyner sent it to forwarded the video to friends, eventually ending up becoming a viral video.
What have the lives of these people been like since the videos were leaked onto the internet? How were their lives affected by their unexpected fame? Another letdown with Rebney is he claims the fame means nothing to him and he wasn’t even aware of it until a friend directed him to it. Steinbauer actually sits down and interviews Veyner, who tells us once the video went public he got 7000 emails, most of which explaining to Veyner why they felt he was a royal douchebag. Others threatened death. Imagine getting 7000 emails telling you that you suck when all you did was apply for a job. In fairness, he does look ridiculous in the video lifting weights, ballroom dancing, pontificating about what it means to be successful and lengthy end credits that rival a professional Hollywood production. Veyner, apparently, moved on but things did not go as well for Star Wars Kid Raza. Steinbauer gleefully shows the video again for the six people out there who hadn’t seen it, but then tells us that Raza had to drop out of school, was diagnosed with depression, and had to finish the year in a juvenile psychiatric hospital. I would like to think Steinbauer wanted to force us to confront the dark side of what we find funny. Oh, you laughed at this nerdy fat kid? Well, he was admitted to a loony bin because we all laughed. What do you think now? Shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves? Unfortunately Steinbauer lets this moment pass.
A telling moment comes when a collector of footage like this scorns the idea of finding out who these people are. He says they are only funny because he doesn’t know the person, but isn’t that the root of the problem of cyberbullying? Steinbauer missed his opportunity to interrogate the issue of anonymity on the internet and its effect on how we treat on another. There is, for many, a completely different standard of behavior and decorum on the internet that in no way matches up with how we would interact face to face. This double standard allows gloating cynics to post without consequence in order to humiliate socially awkward kids and egotistical job applicants.
Not all or even most of these stories have to end in psychiatric hospitals. After all, we all do things in private that would mortify us should it become public, so life goes on. I have read that Raza is in law school now, putting this incident behind him. And the last scenes with Rebney attending the screening of his video in San Francisco were surprisingly touching. We can see he is genuinely moved by the outpouring of support and that all the crotchety bluster leading up to the event was his emotional defense, preparing him for the possibility that no one would show up. I wish this is what the movie could have been about – not just for Jack, but for others who have been humiliated by leaked videos on the internet. Why not try and make this a story of redemption in the face of public humiliation instead of continuing the exploitation which, whether Steinbauer wants to accept it or not, is exactly what he ended up doing.