Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, the new documentary from director Matthew Bate, tells the story of what may very well be the first modern viral sensation. The film itself explores moral grey areas, ideas of ownership, artistic license, and blurs genre lines raising interesting questions about form and fact, reality versus narrative. Shut Up Little Man! not only stages occasional reenactments, but sporadically uses these recreations as a platform to imagine and speculate.
In 1987 two 20-something Wisconsin boys, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitch D, moved from the Midwest to a ramshackle San Francisco apartment. Dubbed the “Pepto-Bismol Palace” due to an unfortunate paint job, the new surroundings offered the possibility of big city adventure for the friends. In reality they got much more than they bargained for.
A terrifying pair of violent alcoholics lived in the apartment next door. Peter—a bitchy, manipulative queen—and Raymond—a bitter, homophobic redneck—fought, loudly and at all hours. They “drank for a living.” Initially, fearing for their physical safety, Eddie and Mitch started taping the ruckus, to have evidence to hand over to the authorities should it become necessary. Over time they became obsessed with Peter and Raymond, poking microphones out of the window, and even inviting people over to share in the mayhem. By the end of their time in the apartment they had compiled over 14 hours of material, which they put snippets of on mix tapes and copied for friends.
The recordings are a strange mixture. Alternately hilarious and sad and profoundly human, they capture a raw, visceral, often horrifying scene. Peter, in a snarky, nasal tone pushes and pushes at Raymond, who responds with hate-filled vitriol, running off a string of hate-filled rants. They are the oddest of odd couples, a gay man and an angry bigot. Though somehow they were able to coexist, not only as roommates and friends, but possibly as lovers. The true nature of their relationship is the great mystery of Shut Up Little Man!, and the search for the answer is the real, though underlying, narrative force in the movie.
A few years passed, and neither Mitch nor Eddie gave much thought to the tapes until a few years later when a magazine tracked them down. Turns out that their audio recordings had become something of an underground phenomenon, kick started by a loose-knit network of tape traders. Shut Up Little Man, coining a favorite phrase of Peters, spawned tapes, ‘zines, comics, puppet theater, plays, films, and all manner of media. The tapes are celebrated artifacts of audio verite—true audio—slice of life recordings, often found or stumbled upon, where the subjects don’t know they’re being recorded. It’s fascinating subculture, one that the film should have spent more time exploring.
Shut Up Little Man the documentary is broken up into distinct chunks. The first tells the story of how the recordings came to be, the sheer coincidence that these two moved into this apartment next to those two lunatics and documented the whole scene. It was like a perfect storm. Then they talk about the phenomenon, the tidal wave of opportunity and avenues it opened up, and the ultimate backlash as people attempted to cash in. Eventually three separate groups vie to make a feature film based on the recordings, each claiming a different sort of ownership over the material.
The most interesting element of the film is the attempts the primary players make to explain the moral grey zone that the recordings pose. Who owns the rights? Is it Eddie and Mitch because they did the actual taping, even though they put an anti-copyright message on the tapes for years? Is it the guy who wrote a play based on the recordings? And so on.
In all of the back and forth, the lives of Peter and Raymond are pushed to the fringes of the conversation, if included at all. Their experiences and the part they played in all of this are commodified, reduced to a property that other people argue over. The most poignant scene in the film is when a sleazy movie producer and newspaper reporter track down Peter, after Raymond has passed, and offer him $100 for his life rights. Listening to the pretentious journalist explain the phenomenon of the recordings to Peter, as if he’s speaking to an idiot instead of a man, is heartbreaking.
Peter has no idea what they’re talking about. He’s a lonely, broken old man who seems excited that anyone is interested in him at all. That’s the rub of it all. Thousands of people listen to these tapes, obsess over them, collect them, trade them, use them as the basis for art, but no one actually cares about the people behind the voices. It’s sad.
It’s interesting to trace how organically the popularity of the tapes spread, and consider how differently it would happen today. Now, with the advent of lightning-fast communication, things go viral in a matter of days and disappear just as fast. Would there have been the same staying power? Would there be such a massive response, artistically, culturally? Would there have been anything to fight over?
Initially you like most of the people involved, especially Eddie and Mitch. They seem like normal guys who did this one little thing as a throwaway, and it blew up all over them. They stumbled into something strange and wonderful. As the film progresses you like them less and less. Everyone is out to make a buck. The whole situation walks the line between art and exploitation. After all, if you want you can order a copy of Peter and Raymond’s death certificates from Eddie Lee Sausage’s website.
Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure is an interesting movie that deals with a range of complex issues and questions. A solid documentary that is worth checking out, the movie never dives into any of the topics as fully as it needs to, and is ultimately too shallow to become something special. It’s good, but they missed the opportunity to make something great, like the tapes they celebrate.
The closest the film comes to really digging into its subject is in one of the bonus features. An extended interview with comic artist Ivan Brunetti (Schizo), who appears throughout the film, comes closest to uncovering why these recordings really resonate, why so many people connect with them so significantly. He explains how Raymond and Peter have wound their way into his daily life, how he first happened across the tapes, and why he kept coming back. In the process he illuminates some of the human elements the tapes captured. They’re more than just funny recordings of two old drunks arguing and calling each other “queer”.
The Brunetti interview is far and away the highlight of the DVD extras. Beyond that there are two deleted scenes. One is a dramatic reenactment of a moment on the tapes, while the other is about one night when Mitch and Eddie set up speakers and played the tapes back at Peter and Ray. An eight minute feature called “Return to the ‘Pepto’”, which is exactly what it sounds like, completes the bonus features.