The documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure resembles Winnebago Man, the recent film about a volatile RV pitchman who became an unwitting Internet sensation. Both movies are about obnoxious people whose appalling behavior was recorded electronically, on videotape in Winnebago Man and on audiocassette in Shut Up Little Man! In both cases the clips were informally distributed and became the object of cultish, sniggering obsession.
I disliked Winnebago Man because of its smugness. Shut Up Little Man! is a more interesting film, and a good one. Director Matthew Bate leaves open the possibility that there is something basically squalid, yet hilarious and memorable, about the events he is documenting.
Winnebago Man struck me as intrusive and exploitative, and there is some of that in Shut Up Little Man! I felt a little sick watching a late sequence in which a shambling San Francisco man is pestered by an interviewer in his shabby SRO dwelling. But groundwork has been carefully laid, and by the time the scene arrived, I was genuinely, uncomfortably curious about the poor guy.
His name is Tony, and he played a small but crucial role in events that occurred in San Francisco almost 25 years ago. A couple of recent UW-Madison graduates, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell Deprey, moved into a dumpy apartment building and began secretly taping the obscene, screaming fights of their alcoholic neighbors. Tony was the neighbors' roommate, and he is heard on the tapes, which are disturbing but undeniably funny.
The young men circulated the tapes, and they attracted the interest of artists like Devo's Bob Mothersbaugh. The recordings were the basis of comic books and even a puppet show, and they got national press attention. A stage play was based on them. Movie projects percolated. Years later, Eddie Lee Sausage is still distributing the recordings and defending them as an art project. Bate is skeptical. Throughout the film, people wonder about the morality and legality of taping those noisy neighbors to begin with.
Shut Up Little Man! has a nostalgic pull for me. I'm about the same age as Sausage and Deprey, and I remember the jokey 1980s subculture they were part of, mostly middle-class young men who took an irony-suffused interest in banal, sometimes sleazy substrata of American culture. Devo was part of this phenomenon, and a telling element in the film is a Charles Bukowski T-shirt that appears occasionally. This underground network was connected in distinctly analog ways - books, zines, obscure radio broadcasts, cassette tapes. It's gone now, thanks to the Internet. In the Internet age, nothing good is obscure for long.