Shut Up, Little Man! is an amusing, occasionally disturbing documentary about the origins and aftereffects of a prankish set of "audio verite" recordings that went viral before "going viral" was even a term. Some of the participants, interviewed recently, seem to want to put a degree of significance and seriousness on the story that it can't really bear. But that fits right into the documentary's method: let those who were there tell their tale, without editorial commentary.
The recordings were made by Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D, two young roommates in San Francisco in the late 1980s, at first in an effort to document for the police the loud and bizarre arguments in their next-door neighbors' apartment, which were frequently disturbing their sleep. The endless drunken, profane quarrels begin to fascinate them, and eventually they shared the tapes with friends, who shared them with other friends...and an underground comedy/reality-show cult was born.
The "stars" of Shut Up, Little Man! are the noisy neighbors themselves: Peter, a gay man around 60 at the time, and his roommate Ray, a few years younger and decidedly not gay. As the cheap liquor flowed, Peter's taunting and needling ("Shut up, little man" was his line) drew vividly scatological and homophobic retorts from Ray. Apparently, hours of the material exist. Some of the highlights are played on the soundtrack, and some are recreated with actors portraying Peter and Ray. The pair had a kind of (non-sexual) marriage, and this is part of what seems to transfix the mostly straight young men who formed a near-cult after hearing the cheaply duped cassettes distributed nationwide.
Although several collectors and devotees interviewed in the film seem to find the John-Waters-meets-Who's-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf routines addictive, and profound as well as high-larious, some viewers may well react as I did: this is narrow, repetitious stuff. The funniest moment comes early on: the very first night young Eddie and Mitch decide to record the craziness by sticking a microphone out the window tied to a stick, they are startled to hear this: "Oh look, the neighbors are recording us." And then Peter and Ray just continue their drunken shouting. The saddest, most disturbing moment comes years later, when a third roommate, interviewed in the fleabag hotel where he lives, expresses happy satisfaction upon being informed of Peter's death.
Fortunately, Matt Bate, the Australian director of this documentary, recognizes the limitations of focusing just on the tapes and the rants. The ambivalence of the two young voyeurs (and that of the many fans the tapes developed) about the ethics of enjoying this real-life disintegration as entertainment, along with the sad and depressing story of what happened to Peter and Ray in the years after the recordings, form the bulk of the film. The visuals, a collage of cartoons and other illustrations, along with stock footage and talking-head interviews, are surprisingly successful at maintaining one's cinematic interest - in a story not intrinsically cinematic.
Now that the Real Housewives TV series, YouTube videos of crazy neighbors, and other forms of instant "reality entertainment" are omnipresent in our lives, Peter and Ray have lost some of the shock value they once must have had for listeners. But it is interesting to learn about this prototype of funny/bizarre viral outrageousness, from a pre-Internet age. Manually duplicated cassettes distributed by postal mail: it was only a couple of decades ago, but it sounds as outmoded as the Pony Express.
Shut Up, Little Man! is currently in limited theatrical release and is also available as video on demand through Amazon and elsewhere.