April 12, 2012 by abbyo
I’ve been a Found Footage fan for a long time. I love surfing the web finding strange home videos, instructional films and incredibly low-budget movies that someone’s found at the bottom of a discount VHS bin. I’ve even tried to find a few of my own specimens, with no real luck. I think the real thrill is the possibility that you could find something in all that digging that becomes culturally significant. The Star Wars Kid, for example, or Winnebago Man. Found Footage and its distant relative, audio verite, are a kind of unintentional folk art. It is stuff nobody was supposed to see or hear that somehow leaked out and gives fans the chance to play peeping tom at a safe distance. It’s easy to laugh at, but because of the origin, it feels just dangerous enough to be special.
“Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure” is a documentary about one of these phenomena, a series of audio verite recordings that started out as an attempt at self-defense, but eventually became something more: a full set of bizarre field recordings that birthed a devoted underground following. The documentary has its good and bad qualities, but the story it tells is fascinating, and is likely to create a whole new group of “Shut Up” devotees.
The “Shut Up Little Man” tapes were created by Eddie and Mitch, a couple of punks fresh out of college who moved together from Wisconsin to a low-rent apartment complex in San Francisco. The subjects of the tapes are their neighbors, Peter, Ray and Tony, who were often drunk, and always shouting at each other. When Eddie went next door to ask them to keep it down, Ray threatened to kill him, So Eddie and Mitch set up a makeshift boom mic and stuck it out the window to record Ray’s conversations and prove that he was a threat to their safety. They never got the proof they needed. What Eddie and Mitch got instead were enough drunken shouting matches to fill up some cassette tapes, which Mitch shared with a friend, who shared them with another friend, and so on, until the thing went viral.
Warning: the following video contains language that is definitely NSFW.
The “Shut Up” tapes have become the subject of much artistic interpretation, inspiring T-shirts, short films, comic books and even a stage play. Among the faithful are artists like Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World”) and Ivan Brunetti (“Schizo”), both of whom go on record in the documentary about their love for the tapes. Even Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh used samples from “Shut Up Little Man” in one of his songs. That’s the really interesting thing about the story of these tapes. It’s not just the content, funny and shocking though it is, but how quickly and widely they spread, decades before the internet and YouTube. This was all sheer word of mouth, and it still went viral almost as quickly as something like Caine’s Arcade does today (okay, maybe not quite that quickly, but you get the idea—it caught on fast).
As a story, “Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure” is entertaining and fairly compelling. As a film, it’s just OK. Director Matthew Bate does some interesting dramatic re-creation of Peter, Raymond and Tony, but other illustrative aspects, like having present-day Eddie and Mitch stick microphones out of windows and knock on the neighbor’s door just seem hokey. The closing scene, where the actors playing Peter and Raymond dance together to the Magnetic Fields’ “Too Drunk to Dream” is just plain silly, an attempt to create a good-humored, touching moment that never works.
The filmmakers don’t do much to explore the true scope of the tapes’ fandom, either, sticking only to people who’ve actually used the footage in their own creative output, or had interaction with Eddie and Mitch, or are just die-hard audio verite collectors (one interviewee’s obsession borders on pathetic). It would have been interesting to hear from a variety of fans, both high-profile and otherwise, to get a good idea of just how big their fan base is. With what we’re given, the audience is left to mostly assume that what Eddie, Mitch and the other interviewees tell us about the tapes’ popularity is true.
Another interesting issue that’s only briefly touched on in the film is that of art and creative ownership. Can Eddie and Mitch’s recordings of their next-door neighbors be considered art if all they did was record what was already there? Did they have a right to claim copyright if they didn’t originally create those conversations in the first place? And did Ray, Peter and Tony have a right to compensation from the recordings if they never knew how important they’d become? Those questions open up a pretty big can of worms, but it never becomes the subject of much debate. Mitch and Eddie did manage to find Peter and Tony after the tapes became a hit, and did eventually try to pay them a little money—they both rejected it—but it seems like an afterthought and it never really answers any questions.
One thing “Shut Up Little Man” does do well, however, is show audiences why these recordings have such a following. Ray and Peter’s knock-down, drag out fights are hilarious, and so bizarre they verge on surrealism. Peter makes grand dramatic statements about the smallest of problems and yells at Ray for stealing his vodka. Ray, in turn, threatens to kill Peter, and spends his nights cuddling a giant stuffed rabbit he refers to as “the girl.” They are abusive, and never pleasant to each other, yet they continue to live together. Their disputes are totally silly in their language, but totally relatable in their content. In addition to that, Mitch and Eddie are charming guys. They’ve got a particular fondness for their subjects, and seem like the kind of guys I would have been friends with in college. It’s fun to listen to them tell their story. If nothing else, “Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure” is an intriguing introduction to these weird tapes that became an underground sensation, and an interesting examination of what it meant to go viral in the days before “going viral” was even a thing.