Judge Gordon Sullivan's found-sound recordings were dull, since he lived between Mr. Bean and Mr. Hulot.
"A darkly hilarious story."
Back in the days before Napster, people traded actual, physical tapes. There was a whole postal underground dedicated to sharing all kinds of audio artifacts. The most popular tended to be live recordings (most famously of The Grateful Dead), but more and more obscure stuff started getting passed around for curiosity's sake. A tape might include everything from a particularly vehement sermon from an early morning Baptist station to jingles and theme songs recorded off of children's television. One of the more famous artifacts to emerge from that underground to wider fame is a recording called Shut Up Little Man. Though it started as an obscure collection of found recordings by a couple of guys living in San Francisco, the tape's popularity in certain circles percolated up through '90s culture after it was released on CD. Now that the '90s are almost two decades past, filmmaker Matthew Bate gives us a documentary about this infamous tape, its creators, and the subjects who were recorded. Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure gives us the story behind this bizarre recording.
Featuring interviews with the intrepid young men who made the recording, An Audio Misadventure looks at the creation and subsequent popularity of Shut Up Little Man. The basic story is that two friends from Wisconsin, Eddie and Mitch, moved out to San Francisco. They moved into a cheap apartment with paper-thin walls. After living there a little while, they started to hear voices—their neighbors were a macho drunk (Raymond) and a flamboyant gay man (Peter) arguing late into the night. Curses, death threats, and rants a plenty keep the two young Wisconsin men from sleeping. So they decide to record their neighbors' creative use of the English language. The edited snippets were traded, and eventually came out on CD, and Eddie and Mitch found themselves making a bit of money and fielding offers for film adaptations.
The creation of the audio that became Shut Up Little Man makes for a compelling story. It's a classic fish-out-of-water story of two guys from the Midwest learning the ropes of city life. The main problem with Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure is that 99 percent of the story is contained in my previous paragraph; hearing Mitch and Eddie recount it along with a few archival photos of them as young guys doesn't really add much. More importantly, a significant percentage of the audience for this documentary is going to be people familiar with the origin story of these mythic tapes. Adding a bit of photographic evidence doesn't do too much to make the story more compelling than it already is. Adding in some reenactments and weird archival footage of TV shows doesn't necessarily add anything, either.
However, all is not lost. The film gets better once it gets past the tapes' origin story to look at the wider impact that it had on pop culture. Bate examines the love that seems to follow these tapes around, as well as the what people see in such found-sound recordings more generally. We also get to see some of the afterlife of the tapes, including multiple film deals (all fell through) and a stage adaptation. At one point someone tracked down Peter, and we watch as he's informed of his strange brand of fame before he signs away the rights to his story for a $100 check.
These latter moments point to the most interesting (and frustrating) aspects of this documentary: the question of who owns what we hear on the tapes. Are they Eddie's and Mitch's for having the guts to hang a microphone-laden ski-pole out of their window? Are the words the sole property of their speakers, Peter and Raymond? Is it somewhere in between? Also, what does it mean to achieve the kind of fame that comes from being a jerk? This was before the days of ubiquitous reality TV, before it was possible to be famous for being an abrasive person. Millions of people will now remember Ray Huffman as a drunken homophobe when he otherwise would have died anonymously. These are all questions with ethical and legal overtones, and Shut Up Little Man raises them without really finding a satisfactory answer.
Shut Up Little Man was shot in HD, so the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks bright and clear during all the contemporary footage. Some of the vintage material shows some wear, but overall this is a pleasing image. The 5.1 surround track is a bit excessive, but the interviewees are easy to understand, and the vintage recordings of Peter and Raymond are surprisingly easy to understand given their precarious origins. Extras start with a deleted scene that features Mitch and Eddie returning to their old apartment to meet the newest tenant. It's amazing the building is still around, considering how flimsy it is. We also get a deleted scene where we learn that Mitch and Eddie would sometimes play the tapes they'd made to Ray and Peter to get them to be quiet. There's also an extended interview and a collection of the reenactments that were made for the film.
Shut Up Little Man is an interesting, though slightly flawed, look at a piece of weird pop culture history. The story is compelling, though the film raises many more questions than it can answer. Obviously fans of the original recordings should seek this disc out, and anyone with an interest in weird '90s culture (or who enjoyed the similarly themed Winnebago Man) will also likely enjoy this one.
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