Call Matthew Bates' Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure a sort of punk rock Errol Morris picture and you're not too far off the mark. Bates shows the same loving fascination with the peculiar and outcast combined with the same ability to humanize those on the outskirts that has marked so much of Morris' best work but he also brings in a sort of nervous, raw energy entirely appropriate to the subject matter here. The end result is a film sure to be one of the more insightful and entertaining docs to hit screens this year.
Shut Up Little Man is the story of Eddie and Mitch, a pair of midwestern punks who pack up and move to San Francisco after finishing college in 1987. They have no real plans, hoping to sort things out when they arrive in California. They find a cheap apartment, realizing far too late that their new neighbors are a pair of chronic drunks prone to late night screaming matches.
It could have been a nightmare scenario. Probably was, at the time. But it's also one that propelled the two men - along with their neighbors - to underground cult stardom. Because rather than moving out the pair broke out their recording equipment, amassing hour after hour of recordings, recordings that would find their way onto mix tapes the pair prepared for friends until they proved so popular that people began demanding the full goods.
The popularity stems from the subjects, Peter and Ray. Ray, for his part, was a violent homophobe constantly spewing threats of extreme violence. Peter? Peter was a flamboyantly gay man always quick with a dismissive put down that Ray could never quite counter. The tapes of the duo's shouting matches would become a true sensation, immensely popular in tape trading circles, the dialog being used verbatim in comics, stage plays, records, and even a movie.
On the surface Shut Up Little Man is a film simply about those tapes, the title of the film one of Peter's favorite lines. Had Bates left the film on this level it still would have been a hugely entertaining endeavor but he goes farther.
First Bates dives into the world of Eddie and Mitch, young men completely unprepared for the popularity of what started as a sort of private prank. At first they try to simply keep up with demand. Then, as they realize the scope of the demand they struggle to contain and capitalize. Their story becomes one of competing business interests, broken promises and collaborations ended in bitterness.
On another level Shut Up Little Man as a fascinating look at how information was transmitted in the era before the internet. the original tapes were a truly viral phenomenon spread by word of mouth, the postal service and tape trading lists. The film gives a glimpse into a part of the underground culture's immediate past - a part that has completely disappeared in the digital age.
the film's staying power, though, comes from it's final element - Eddie and Mitch's realization that, whatever their intentions, the tapes that they made and shared amount to little more than exploitation. And so they try and track down the original subjects of the recordings and put things right. And their meeting with Peter proves one of the more powerful and transforming moments seen on screen recently, taking an object of humor and mockery and presenting him as a fragile and broken down old man.
Though the film has a bit of a mid-section sag to it and is not without its bumps along the way Shut Up Little Man is a remarkable piece of work - a wildly entertaining ride with a surprising amount of heart.
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