Thursday, October 6, 2011

IFS Review: "Shut Up, Little Man!" offers an intriguing look at a pre-internet viral sensation

Film Rating: B

As a film student at CU Boulder, I’m making an effort to review some of the films being shown here at the International Film Series (IFS), the University’s historic art-house series programmed since 1941.  For more information about the films, showtimes, and locations, visit

Today I’m review the documentary “Shut Up, Little Man! – An Audio Misadventure,” which also ends it run today at the Denver Film Center.  Review after the jump…

In 1987, two twenty-something young men – Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. – moved into a run-down apartment complex in San Francisco.  In the middle of the night, they began hearing their next-door neighbors, Raymond Huffman and Peter Haskett, engaging in loud, drunken, and vulgar arguments.  Raymond would spout off hate speech about “queers” and “cocksuckers,” while Peter would cry “shut up little man!” over and over.  After a few sleepless nights, Eddie and Mitchell had the bright idea to start recording these alcoholic rants, and in two years time, they had over a dozen hours of wacky, unhinged, offensive, and ultimately hilarious arguments collected on cassette tapes.  They copied some of these tapes for their friends, and those friends would make duplicates for others, and soon enough, the recordings spread like wildfire.  “Official” tapes were soon issued, and fans began adapting the recordings into comic books, a stage play, a short film starring puppets, and more.  CD volumes of “Shut up, little man!” began hitting stores in 1993, while Eddie and Mitch started having discussions with Hollywood producers about a feature film adaptation.  It was a full-blown viral phenomenon, many years before the internet even brought the term into existence. 

It’s all rather intriguing, but I hardly think the story is inherently suited to be the subject of a feature-length documentary.  This isn’t like “Buck,” which I reviewed last week, where all it takes to achieve cinematic gold is to point the camera at a remarkable subject.  To turn the “Shut Up, Little Man!” phenomenon into an engaging feature requires a strong, unified vision, and perhaps more importantly, expert documentary filmmaking.

“Shut Up” certainly succeeds on that level.  Director Matthew Bate is wildly thorough: via the time-tested talking-head interview, he provides in-depth analysis from almost everybody involved with this phenomenon, along with a number of fans.  Every perspective we could possibly want is included: Bate even digs up a 1995 video interview with Peter Haskett himself, conducted by a San Francisco journalist, and in the present, we hear from Peter and Ray’s equally alcoholic (and far more violent) friend Tony.  Bate covers all his bases, but his most valuable tool turns out to be the original recordings themselves.  He deploys these sound bites expertly, giving us context for the entire ordeal, piquing our interest, making us laugh, making us cringe, and ultimately, exposing the depressing state of Peter and Ray’s lives.

To make the story cinematically engaging, Bate uses every documentary trick in the book: he stages simple but clever dramatizations of Ray and Peter’s arguments, all set to the original recordings; displays dozens of insightful and amusing pictures along with clips from the various productions the recordings inspired; edits the film with a cleverly varying tempo that can be manic in some moments and measured the next; and most importantly, uses sound as his chief narrative tool.  Bate’s ability to make the film visually interesting is admirable, but this isn’t called “An Audio Misadventure” for nothing: between the original recordings, new and archival interviews, bits of sound from all the video/theatre adaptations, and a wonderfully energetic score, “Shut Up” bursts with sound so vigorously that it’s impossible not to be swept up in the titular adventure. 

It’s an incredibly well made film.  This much is undeniable.  Under normal circumstances, the “Shut Up, Little Man!” story would make a fascinating five-minute read on Wikipedia, but Bate and his team manage to extend that captivation to a full ninety minutes without a single slow or dull moment.  This is expert documentary filmmaking, and I’m recommending the movie based on that alone. 

The film does have one major drawback, in that it never truly manages to say anything deep or meaningful about the material.  In the early portions of the film, the story seems to be a lighthearted look at a goofy viral sensation, and at that point, there’s no reason to dig beyond the surface.  It’s funny and fluffy, but in a good way.  Then, around the one hour mark, it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s something more to this story, something actively depressing about the material.  Two drunken, bickering lunatics is funny up to a point, but it soon becomes sad to imagine two people living this way, especially once Bate gives us very human faces to connect with the voices.  It’s equally disheartening to see Eddie and Mitch get embroiled in petty legal squabbles over material they recorded without permission; something that should have been fun and simple suddenly becomes serious and complex for these men, too convoluted for their own good. 

All told, it becomes almost overwhelmingly grim after a while, and though the last twenty minutes take a good stab at dissecting this darkness to find deeper meaning, the film comes up empty handed.  Bate mixes in footage of various viral YouTube sensations involving violent arguments, demonstrating how “Shut Up Little Man” was just the first of many examples of how our culture idolizes dysfunction.  Yet Bate doesn’t go anywhere with this thesis; there’s a point where we very much sympathize with Peter and Roy, if only because these men clearly had nothing else in their lives but drinking and fighting, and Bate fails to ask why our society finds fascination in this sort of human suffering.  Not only is no conclusion reached, but no substantive analysis of any kind is attempted.  Eddie makes a speech about the provocative power of art to justify the “Shut Up, Little Man!” project, but no effort is made to explain the meaning behind the provocation.  There’s clearly a dichotomy here between humor and darkness, but the documentary is ultimately afraid to confront that darkness head on; instead, the project is always aimed from a comedic gaze, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that this whole affair is more sad then funny.

In the end, the film feels a bit empty, rings hollow in moments where it absolutely could resonate.  That doesn’t make it a bad film at all: even operating solely on the surface, this is a fairly fascinating story brought to life with expert craftsmanship, and thanks to the role viral videos play in our daily lives, the story is probably more relevant now than it was twenty years ago.  That relevancy could have given way to something more substantive, but as is, this is still a fresh, unique, and entertaining experience. 

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