In the years before the Internet became a mass medium, people interested in keeping up with underground phenomena relied on Xeroxed ’zines and the handmade cassettes they could order from the back of those publications. One of the biggest sub-popular trends of the late ’80s and ’90s was “found audio”: ranting celebrities, prank calls, and in the case of the “Shut Up Little Man” series, drunken arguments. Matthew Bate’s documentary Shut Up Little Man! tells how two guys in their early 20s started putting snippets of their hollering neighbors on the mix-tapes they sent to friends, and how those friends demanded more, until there was a thriving mail-order market and interest from movie producers. Subsequent squabbles over money rights ended friendships and raised troubling ethical questions.
Bate never solves the problem of how to make audiotapes cinematic. (His choice to play some tapes under stock footage from old industrial films is both a visual cliché and kind of dopey.) And while it’s admirable that Shut Up Little Man! raises the issue of whether the original tapes are exploitative, Bate’s decision to devote most of the last third of the film to the topic seems like a strained effort to bring gravitas to a relatively light subject. But he’s right that there is a lot more going on here than the story of a largely forgotten underground sensation.
Bate invites a disparate bunch of SULM true-believers to explain their obsession, and many of them point to the same spirit of voyeurism that makes YouTube videos go viral today: that sense of getting an unfiltered look into how other people live. Except that in the case of these tapes, part of the mystique was that no one could figure out the nature of the relationship between the two bickerers: a homosexual-hating bruiser and his bitchy gay roommate. So Bate tracks down a man who occasionally lived with the pair, and finds him living in a squalid one-room apartment in a hotel for the indigent and alcoholic. The interview with the last surviving man on the tapes ends the movie, and clarifies that what made Shut Up Little Man! special wasn’t just colorfully profane arguing, but that it was coming from a skid-row subculture that’s just as insular and inaccessible in its way as the network of folks who pass around rare cassettes.