VHS viral video star makes cinema debut

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Ex-professor’s documentary of ‘angriest man in the world’ wins over audiences, critics

In the spring of 2009, during his final semester as professor of RTF 318, Ben Steinbauer began every class in the CMA auditorium with the lights off and a YouTube video playing. Dark brown ankle boots, jeans, a collared shirt and a curious Winnebago Van belt buckle became just as familiar to the class as Steinbauer’s affinity for viral videos.

One of those videos was “Winnebego Man,” a low quality copy of a copy of a copy of a VHS tape digitized and uploaded to YouTube. The clip was a series of outtakes from an infomercial promoting the 1989 Itasca Sunflyer featuring Jack Rebney, a disgruntled industrial video salesmen. Rebney’s short temper and creative use of profanity propelled him to stardom.

Steinbauer’s obsession with the video inspired a documentary about his search for “the angriest man in the world.” Midway through his last semester, Steinbauer premiered “Winnebego Man” at the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival to audience and critical acclaim. One year later, the documentary has won more than five awards at international film festivals, including the Traverse City and Sarasota film festivals, is currently being screened in more than 40 theaters across the country and is showing for an extended weekend at The Ritz and Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin.

Steinbauer spoke with The Daily Texan on Monday about the film.

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The Daily Texan: When did you first watch the infamous Jack Rebney video?

Ben Steinbauer: It was about 2001 ... and this friend of mine pulls up this beaten-up VHS tape with masking tape on the spine — and this is before YouTube, so to get videos like that was rare but then to see something like that was like an artifact from a bygone era, something that just spelled classified, something you just shouldn’t be watching. And then it proceeded to just get funnier and funnier and by the end you are like, “this is scripted, there is no way that this is real,” because it’s that good. And then you watch it again, and then you start quoting it, and then I ask for my own copy and showed it to everybody I knew, and then usually people that I showed it to did the exact same thing — and that’s how this thing spread from 1988 to the present day pretty much.

DT: What has the past year been like for you?

BS: It’s one of those things where this movie kind of has a life of its own to the point that it startled everyone on my team. I wanted to make a good film and do something that I was going to be proud of and that people would like, but things like being on the “Tonight Show” or our movie reviewed by “Access Hollywood” were never even on the radar for me. With an independent documentary you don’t even get a theatrical distribution, let alone the publicity that we’ve received. It’s a really small movie that I made with my friends with a bunch of credit cards. I didn’t really have the infrastructure built necessarily at the beginning when I premiered it. This past year and half has taken me by surprise. I mean, we’ve been all over the world. We’ve played western Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand; it’s been incredible. But I’ve had to learn so many things I didn’t know about distributing a movie.

DT: Since the release of the film, Jack Rebney’s life has changed significantly. How do you feel about playing this kind of role in his life?

BS: If he was on the phone [right now] he would say “aw bullshit, nothing has changed.” The thing that was really interesting for me to understand about him and took a long time is that he is the embodiment of that screen writing maxim “show and don’t tell.” And that’s absolutely how you know where you stand with him or what he is thinking, you just see it on his face. So at the end of the film when he is standing in the theater and everybody is laughing at the clip, that look on his face, to me, almost sums up the movie; he’s amazed, he’s bewildered, he’s excited. I mean, Michael Moore introduced our theatrical screening in New York and people stood for hours to talk to Jack. He loves addressing these audiences and his message has turned from doom and gloom to more of this proactive, hopeful message. And in that simple example you can see it. At least to me, I think he has re-entered society to an extent and that has given him hope, or at least the understanding that the people who are fans of the clip or the documentary are not “room-temperatured idiots,” as he said in the movie.

DT: Did you have a backup plan in case you couldn’t find Rebney or he didn’t respond the way you expected?

BS: We were definitely like “if he quits or if he throws me out, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Maybe I can find other people who had the same kind of story happen to them and it could be three or four of these portraits woven together, but the more Jack started to open up to me and we developed this relationship, the more that so clearly became the story. I was flying by the seam of my pants and pushing in a direction that I never quite knew how it was going to end up, and I just had to sort of go all in with it and not really have a safety net.

DT: You really know you might have something when you are taking giant leaps of faith like that.

BS: Yeah, either that or you know that you’re really stupid and should maybe consider another line of work. The outcome of he and I being friends and he and I doing these interviews has been wonderful but it was not like that during production.