Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. are faintly abashed opportunists. No, wait, they're urban collectors and public servants. Nah, they're Midwesterners who dabbled in city living, and got a taste of being cool. Wrong again, bucko: They're artists. Accidental artists, but artists nonetheless.
As the subjects and narrators of Aussie filmmaker Matthew Bate's feature-length documentary Shut Up, Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure, Mitch and Eddie Lee have ample opportunity to play all those roles, wittingly or not. And so do we, when the film is humming properly.
See, the entire "Shut Up, Little Man!" saga is a case study in eavesdropping, voyeurism, cheap amusement at other people's expense, poverty-row exploitation and appropriation. The question is whether the protagonists, and we viewers shamelessly and endlessly clamoring to be entertained, take any responsibility for our participation.
Fresh out of college in the late '80s, Eddie and Mitch moved to San Francisco and found a cheap apartment in the lower Haight. Next door lived a pair of middle-aged alcoholics who drank and argued at all hours of the night. In self-defense, as it were, the young guys strapped a microphone to a pole and held it outside their neighbors' window, recording hundreds of hours of ludicrous, obscenity-laced banter. (Peter was gay and Ray was homophobic, adding another bizarre dimension to their hate-love cacophony.)
Mitch and Eddie gave cassettes to friends, who passed them around to an ever-widening circle that included Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, graphic artist Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) and L.A. playwright Gregg Gibbs. Each was inspired to interpret the twisted dynamic between Ray and Peter in his own medium. In short order, "Shut Up, Little Man!" (named after one of Peter's favorite putdowns) had become an underground phenomenon.
The democratization of art is a fine development, by and large, but it has some undesirable side effects. The worst is the elevation of tacky schlock to pop-culture immortality. That's my rant, not the filmmaker's. Bate is more interested in how the various players see their relationship with the "source material" and justify their amusement at the depressed and depressing Ray and Peter.
I'll venture that the best part of seeing Shut Up, Little Man! with an audience is hearing the guffaws give way to sporadic chuckles and, finally, uncomfortable laughter. (Presumably that was the response when the doc debuted at Sundance and received its local premiere, curiously, in the Frameline LGBT festival in June.)
At that point, moviegoers have come to identify so closely with Mitch and Eddie Lee that we feel complicit in the painful saga of Peter and Ray. We may not hate ourselves for laughing earlier in the movie, but we assuredly resolve to be better people from now on. And that's about the most any filmmaker can ask.
Shut Up, Little Man! opens Friday, August 26, 2011 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and the Elmwood in Berkeley. For more information visit roxie.com.