Here comes another Sundance documentary to prove one of my most fervently-held beliefs: The most interesting documentaries are the ones that turn out to be about something pretty different than what you expect they're about.
Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure is Australian filmmaker Matthew Bate's take on a uniquely American incident. In 1987, 20-something Wisconsin transplants Eddie and Mitch moved into a seedy San Francisco apartment building, and soon realized that their next door neighbors, Ray and Peter, regularly engaged in loud, drunken arguments. Initially fearing for themselves, Eddie and Mitch started recording the arguments as "evidence" should any foul play occur--then continued for two years out of sheer fascination.
Those pre-Internet-era recordings became underground sensations—and Bate explores the implications of that celebrity. The film takes off on a few different tangents, all of them interesting: the recordings’ improbable journey to pop-culture ubiquity; the fight, as they became a potentially lucrative property, over who actually “owns” the recordings; the way the “Shut Up Little Man!” tapes presaged the YouTube era of turning meltdowns (like Christian Bale’s) into entertainment. It’s actually most effective, though, in its surprisingly affecting look at the individuals whose sad lives and domestic turmoil became a punch line that others cashed in on. Maybe it took someone who wasn’t an American to point out our roadside casualties in the Age of Irony.