Verbal Amuse

Two violent drunks yell at each other for 75 minutes, and it's wonderful

The hardest thing to explain about Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth!, a weird gem from director Robert Taicher, is its tone. Somehow, this film about two sordid and violent drunks who hurl hateful obscenities at each other, over and over, from beginning to end -- yep, that's the whole movie -- is not merely funny, but endearing and warm. Antagonists Pete and Ray would be hell to live with, or near, and at times they're painful to watch. But miraculously, they're relatable. Locked in a bald and ugly battle for survival, they invite nothing so much as cheer.

Taicher's film is an interesting amalgam of genres. It's scripted, with parts played by actors, but the dialogue has been lifted directly from real life. Pete and Ray were real men living in the Haight in the 1980s, in a squalid pink building known as the Pepto-Bismol Palace, and their obstreperous "conversations" (read: hostile clashes) were recorded by frustrated and enterprising neighbors. Because Pete used "Shut up, little man!" as salutation, substance, argument, and dismissal, what resulted became known as the "Shut Up! Little Man" tapes. They were duplicated and shared around the world, becoming a daily radio soap opera in New Zealand. They even found their way onto NPR.

After the men died (Ray in 1992 and Pete in 1996), writer Gregg Gibbs brought the material to the stage, and Taicher has translated it to film. Clearly, more than a few people have seen the genius in these dialogues, and Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth!, while obviously operating on a Lilliputian budget, makes up for its indie production values with dazzlingly good acting. As Pete, a bloated and effete Southern queen who could have kept company with Tennessee Williams, Glenn Shadix is gloriously over-the-top, wielding his enormous belly like a weapon and lording his girth and grace over his tottering roommate. As Ray, a skinny and squinting geezer with the shakes, Gill Gayle is magnificent, inhabiting the body of a man so far gone on booze that he can't make a coherent phone call or assemble a canned-bean sandwich. Together, they are the Oscar and Felix of Sartre's No Exit, an odd couple so dark that they appear to have been planted in hell merely to torment each other. Then there's the Beckett: The men constantly discuss whether or not they're going to call the police and whether the police will come. The movie may look modest, but it aspires to art.

You wouldn't think that a script so limited in scope could offer much to an actor, but Shadix and Gayle find worlds inside a single repeated insult. A typical conversation: "OK, you do it." "OK, I'll do it right now." "OK, you do it." "OK, I'll do it right now." "OK, you do it." "OK, I'll do it right now." Of course, there are also howlers, as when Ray says to Pete, "My mind is nine-tenths more intelligent than yours will ever be, you cocksucker," and when Pete smarms, "I can kill you, and I will do it from a sitting position." Another kicker from Pete: "You always giggle falsely. You don't have a decent giggle in you." Ray may not have a decent giggle, but he does have a giant stuffed rabbit, which he refers to as "the girl." They sit together on the couch in a state somewhere between existence and nonexistence, staring blankly into the void.

What these men are doing, one suspects, is saying their creed, marking their turf, asserting their right to exist in the face of another who would like to annihilate them. In living with the other, each has engaged a perennial and immediate adversary. As they shout at one another to shut up, again and again, never shutting up for demanding that the other do it first, they run circles around themselves and become consumed by those circles, the proverbial snake eating its tail. "I didn't try to hit you." "That's not true." "I did try to hit you." "That is true." "I didn't try to hit you." "That's not true." "I did try to hit you." "That is true." You could lose your mind over this, or you could find God, but you don't have to: Pete and Ray seem to have done a little of both.

At 75 minutes, Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth! is still a bit long. There's only so much of this kind of thing a person can take. And, though a few other characters do appear and a couple of things eventually happen, don't expect any plot or much by way of variation. This is more poetry than prose, more song than story. Like a Reichian opera, its dialogue is atonal music that repeats and repeats, changing only slightly and in the details. But those details are worth waiting for.

 
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