The documentary "Shut Up Little Man!" tells a fascinating, strangely hilarious, somewhat sad, and slightly disturbing tale about an underground phenomenon that began in the most unlikely of ways. In 1987, two Midwestern transplants moved into a cheap San Francisco apartment to experience the thrills of a big city existence. As misfortune (or luck) would have it, they were next door to embittered, alcoholic and argumentative neighbors whose nightly rants crossed the line into some of the nastiest confrontations imaginable. The dysfunctional duo seemed an oddly matched pair--one a violent bigot, one a scathing nag. As the boys listened to the nightly melees and even tried to address the issue, they were met with indifference and threats. So they started recording the conversations. And as they shared the tapes with friends, more and more interest built up over the squabbling pair. Over the next couple of years, the cassettes were traded across the United States and a genuine pre-Internet viral sensation was underway.
Matthew Bate's film "Shut Up Little Man" (that was one of the hugely popular catchphrases culled from the recordings) can really be divided into a couple of distinct parts. It is told mostly from the vantage point of the guys who made the recordings as they look back on the situation and revisit locations from many years ago. As they recount the sordid tale, it's hard not to be mesmerized by the horrendous arguments. And I found the whole scenario absolutely hysterical. Sad, disturbing and a complete train wreck--but uncomfortably funny nevertheless. As someone who was raised in an abusive and alcoholic household, I'm ashamed to admit that I still found the "Shut Up Little Man" phenomenon eminently entertaining. But as the film progresses, we see what happens in the years following the original events. And, to my mind, that's where things get decidedly less amusing. What started as a curiosity was soon something everyone wanted to profit from--especially the guys that made the cassettes in the first place. Comedians appropriated material from the tapes, plays were written, comic books were conceived and at one point--three movie deals were pushing to make the story.
I won't divulge much more, but what becomes apparent is that this underground art completely turned to exploitation (at least to my mind). Everyone sought to get rich on intellectual property that arguably belonged to no one. And left completely out in the cold, the guys whose arguments were the source material. The movie does attempt to reconcile these complicated ethical and legal areas, and its not always a flattering portrait of those that we're supposed to identify with. Writer/director Bate does a good job leaving the film open ended. I'm sure that different people will react differently to the piece and develop their own viewpoint. The film raises a lot of valid questions, many of which are open to interpretation. At the end, I felt sorry and sympathetic toward the duo that I so readily laughed at in the beginning--and this transition of mood surprised and unnerved me. The entire episode may be slightly distasteful and disturbing, but it is never less than fascinating. KGHarris, 1/12.