Feb. 23 2011 12:00 AM

Life has been a wild ride for a ’Winnebago Man’

Jack Rebney weeps the tears of an unintentional clown in "Winnebago Man." Courtesy Photo
Unlike most reality-TV "stars," Jack Rebney never went looking for fame. But he found it, thanks to some profanity-packed outtakes from a promotional film he made for a line of Winnebagos in the late 1980s.

Many of those caustic clips turn up throughout documentarian Ben Steinbauer’s “Winnebago Man,” an attempt to chart the curious course of Rebney’s life from a career as a TV news producer to a Winnebago pitchman and, finally, as a recluse in the California mountains. The movie is hampered somewhat by Steinbauer’s awkwardness as an interviewer: He never gets many details out of Rebney (although he succeeds in getting on his nerves multiple times) and he doesn’t examine what’s behind Rebney’s long friendship with the extremely mildmannered, ever-smiling Keith Gordon, who has apparently tolerated Rebney’s tantrums for 35 years. While Rebney may be, as his fans have called him, "The Angriest Man in the World," Steinbauer has difficulty finding the roots of that rage.

If "Winnebago Man" ultimately paints a rather unfocused portrait of Rebney, it’s more effective as an analysis of the siren song of stardom — why people crave celebrity and why it often spins out of their control. “I don’t want an audience, I don’t need an audience!” Rebney declares, but he doesn’t exactly shoo away Steinbauer and his camera. He’s clearly caught in the same trap as Heidi Montag and Kate Gosselin and many of the other pseudo-stars that insist they want to be left alone, yet eagerly sign up for anything that might net them another People or Us magazine cover.

What Rebney seems to hunger for is a chance to drum up interest in the philosophical book he’s working on. He’s also perfectly pleased to step into the spotlight if he can sermonize about the villainy of former Vice President Dick Cheney or the wickedness of WalMart. Like the tabloid darlings who flee from the papparzzi, yet happily pose for provocative
photo shoots whenever they have some new movie or CD to peddle, he
doesn’t want attention he can’t use for his own purposes.

Now in his late 70s, Rebney is both proud and prickly, quick to camouflage his need for acceptance behind a crusty scowl and the attitude of a snooty professor. He’s not always convincing, especially when he is showered with praise from “Found Footage Festival” hosts Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher at a tribute in San Francisco. “We’ve watched your video more than we’ve seen ‘Indiana Jones,’” Prueher gushes. “You’re our Harrison Ford.” Rebney tries to maintain a skeptical stance, but you can see the twinkling in his eyes.

Throughout “Winnebago Man,” Steinbauer captures Rebney trying, in his own way, to ride two horses at once: He wants to rebuild his reputation, yet still cash in on his cult status as a loose cannon with a salty tongue and a capricious temper. It’s a tricky stunt and watching Rebney struggle to pull it off is fascinating, frightening, funny and sometimes a bit sad, too.

’Winnebago Man’

by East Lansing Film Society 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 25 and
Saturday, Feb. 26 Room 107, South Kedzie Hall (corner of Farm Lane and
Auditorium Road) Michigan State University $7; $5 for seniors; $3 for
students www.elff.com