Plot: Tapes of two old men fighting becomes a sensation across the country.
Review: Shut Up Little Man! is about sad men.
If there was ever a case of a tragic-comedy documentary, this is it. The documentary starts as a comedy about two roommates in San Francisco who after countless sleepiness nights decided to record the two old men, named Peter and Raymond, who spend their nights fighting. Through friends swapping and sharing, the tapes become famous and start inspiring others to create art based on it. After a while and with the threat of fame on the horizon, copyright and privacy issues start to come up as the two original roommates fight for their shared 15 minutes.
The documentary starts off and it has it’s funny moments. Basically its the story of two young men that just wanted to sleep but the two old drunken neighbors spend their nights screaming at each other. As we learn more and more about the old men, one is gay/one is a homophobe, their story becomes more mysterious and odd. Especially when you find out there is a third old man named Tony that stays silent. If anything it’s an odd slice of life that captures what old people that spend their days drinking and their nights fighting. But that’s all we learn about them.
About halfway through, the story shifts from the two old men to the roommates that first recorded them. As the tapes become more and more popular, they start fighting for their claim to the tapes. This comes to a head when three movie studios want to make a film about the two old men (how old men cursing at each other would fill a mainstream film alludes everyone) but the rights and ownership eventually break everything down. During all this the roommates try to claim what they did was art and that art eclipses privacy and ownership. This is where the documentary really begins as the roommates (who never reveal their real names) try to convince themselves as much as they try to convince us that what they did was not morally wrong. They tell stories of how they offered Raymond100 dollars for 8 hours of best selling tapes to clear their conscience and are offended and flabbergasted when the old alcoholic rebuffs them.
They state over and over again how what they did was art because it showed a slice of American life. The problem is that it’s not. You slowly realize that no one wants to hear about the lives of Raymond and Peter but instead want to hear two old men yell at each other. This is made clear when the artists compare these tapes to Jerky Boys or crank calls. The difference being that in Jerky boys, the person making the character is in on the joke. Here the joke is the old men. The greatest example of this is when the director finds old footage of Peter and shows it to the fans. In the video, a movie producer tricks Peter into signing his life rights away for 200 dollars. But without the filter of just audio and alcohol, we see Peter for who he truly is: a confused old addict. He is nothing to laugh at as the producer takes advantage of his confusion in trying to recall what happened and why these people where there. The smiles of the fans and artist slowly fade as the real man breaks out of the character and presents himself. The realization of how sad and tragic these two men were washes over their face and it is painful to watch. One obsessed fan, who walked around sprouting lines, finishes the video he simply states: “Maybe it’s time to grow up.” The joke has run it’s course and the fan has had to realize the two men behind the screams.
Luckily the director and film knows this. The greatest thing about the film is the illusion to the two original roommates that this will finally make them famous and give them the recognition they deserve but really it’s shifts to being about how two men can manipulate Raymond and Peter’s life while justifying it to themselves. The most moving and tragic scene comes near the end as one roommate gives a speech about how what they are doing is art. This is crosscut with the other roommate visiting the mysterious third roomate, Tony, and trying to get Tony to let them interview him. Even though Tony has refused them numerous times before, the roommate is back with a hollow promise of fame, a camera (he does not tell Tony about the camera until Tony sees it) and 100 dollars. Basically we watch as one roommate states that he sells the death certificates of Raymond and Peter (they both have passed on by the time of the film) because he doesn’t like “clean art” as the other roommate works his way into Tony’s apartment. It shows how far these two men are willing to go to exploit the old men and how little they understand what they are doing. You realize that the tragedy is not just with Peter and Raymond but with the roommates who have either convinced themselves or never thought about the morality of their actions. If you ever wondered why people can do horrible things to humanity, such as soldiers blindly following orders, this gives you one outlet of how they can convince themselves of what is right. And that’s the worst part of it.
So at the end, the story of Shut Up Little Man! is the story about sad men. And how they took advantage of lonely older addicts.
Trivia: First feature to be made and released from the South Australian Film Corporation’s Filmlab initiative.