Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Shut Up Little Man!

Shut Up Little Man!
from John & Sue's DVD collection

Covert surveillance - catching people with their pants down doing silly, embarrassing or incriminating things - is an idea that's both titillating and terrifying, depending on which side of the recording device you're on. As technology has improved over the years, it has become easier and easier to do just that, as millions of YouTube videos will attest to. Is it a morally defensible act, however?

Living in post-9-11 New York, in which surveillance has been taken to great extremes, I try not to think about all the hidden cameras that follow one around almost everywhere these days - and I'm not even talking about for security purposes. Anyone with a cellphone can catch you on the record for whatever reason they like, and you don't even have to be aware of it. Maybe they think you dress funny and wanna make fun of you on their Facebook page. Maybe you got drunk off your ass at a bar last night and someone posted a video of you on YouTube. And these are the relatively benign examples.

It's disturbing, without a doubt. At what point does it stop becoming entertainment and start becoming an invasion of privacy? I have no idea. It's easy to blame technology, but technology is neither good nor evil. It's all in how it's applied. The truth is, we are little children playing with new toys. We have little sense of restraint and we're more concerned with self-gratification than with any notion of boundaries.

I certainly can't deny that videos and pics of this nature are amusing. I don't actively seek them out, but if I see one and it's funny, I'll laugh, secretly grateful it's not me getting punk'd while ROFLing at how stupid and/or gullible some people can be.

Sometimes seeing these images are necessary in order to negotiate behavior. There's a blogger who takes pictures of people eating like pigs on the subway, and after browsing through the site, I've been scared straight enough to practice more restraint (not to mention cleanliness) if I ever eat anything bigger than a candy bar on the subway (which is not even all that often). But do we need such shame-inducing tactics to get us to behave better? The more I see of people, the more convinced I am that the answer, sadly, is yes, because some people are simply without shame. But that's another post.

This brings me to the phenomenon that is Shut Up Little Man. In the 80s, two dudes living in a dirt cheap San Francisco apartment were subjected to the loud, vitriolic ravings and arguments of two old men (and an occasional visitor) living next door to them. Reasoning with them didn't work, so instead they chose to amuse themselves by secretly recording the old men's conversations - which was easy to do, since they were so loud. They made a bunch of cassette tapes and shared them with their friends, who shared them with their friends, and before long, a cult sensation was born. The title comes from a phrase one of the old dudes constantly repeats in his more agitated states.

The documentary Shut Up Little Man! is the story of how this all came to be. I watched it at John & Sue's place last weekend. Part of the reason they own it is that Sue knows one of the people interviewed (though not directly), but it's still the kind of movie they'd own anyway because it's such a bizarre story.

The appeal of the Little Man tapes is in the level of the unrestrained profanity, bigotry and bile unleashed in a completely real and authentic setting. (Apparently there's a name for this sort of sub-sub-genre: audio verite.) These two old men lived together, yet they bickered and fought on an epic scale, one that makes the Odd Couple look like the Get Along Gang.

The Little Man tapes led to a wide variety of spin-offs in other media, including a stage play, comic books (Ghost World's Daniel Clowes is among the interviewees), a puppet show, songs, and more, and Little Man the doc captures it all. The Australian filmmakers even create dramatizations of selections from the Little Man tapes, in which actors play the roles.

There's much more to the story, including what happened when the surviving old men learned of the Little Man phenomenon, the inevitable Hollywood involvement, the gay angle, and the morality question. It's an utterly fascinating tale, and well worth watching.


  1. I've added this to my Netflix queue. How interesting that their antics were passed around in a time when doing so wasn't as convenient as it is now!

  2. One thing I didn't mention was this film's reverence for the cassette tape as a means to pass information around. To those of us from this generation (I'm not sure how old you are), cassettes were awesome and this film is a reminder of that.

  3. I'm 37, so I, too, remember the awesomeness. :)

  4. Ok, so we're in the same ballpark. :-)


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