On the cuss-filled tapes that made them unwitting (and unknowing) celebrities, San Francisco roommates Raymond and Peter provided the bleakest of comedies. The tapes themselves are the most compelling material in Matthew Bate's new documentary on Raymond, Peter, and the two neighbors who recorded their arguments in 1987, unleashed them into the world as a public-domain art project, and then claimed copyright as soon as Hollywood looked interested. Fascinating stuff, but audio vérité presents problems that Bate doesn't solve. To visualize the drama, he resorts to reenactments with actors playing Raymond and Peter, robbing viewers of the chance to dream up these guys ourselves. And as counterpoint to Raymond and Peter's spirited harangues, he often cuts to familiar stock footage of wholesome '50s Americans beaming at their TVs and radios, injecting his own forced context on the material. But when Bate hits, he hits. In remarkable footage from 1995, George Cothran, then an SF Weekly reporter, explains to Peter what nobody else had ever bothered to: that tapes of him shouting had made him something of a star. At moments like this, Shut Up, Little Man! achieves the weight and power of the original recordings, which suggest that cruel bickering might be a ritual through which we relieve life's pain.
Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., Sept. 23-Thurs., Sept. 29. Not rated, 90 minutes.