Shut Up, Little Man!
Directed by Matthew Bate
Bored in Wisconsin in 1987, friends Mitchell D. and Eddie Lee transported themselves to San Francisco, where, they gathered, stuff was happening. Vaguely artistic smartasses, the two needed a place to live, and were immediately taken with a pink apartment building they called the Pepto Bismal Palace, which had a room for let. With ink drying, the landlord casually mentioned that their new neighbors occasionally raised their voices in anger. Those neighbors were alcoholics Peter Haskett and Ray Huffman, and their drunken arguments were not mere irritations, but deafening, unholy tirades filled with the homosexual Peter's arch, queeny insults ("You always giggle falsely," the title crack), and Ray's profane, homophobic comebacks ("I'm a decent human being, you cocksucker.")
Mitch and Eddie were so fascinated by the tumult that they decided to start recording it to cassette tapes—like much art, an initial capricious decision made without overthinking. The tapes amassed into many dozens of hours' worth of material, and became an underground trading sensation, then an abridged, sold-out CD on a Matador imprint. The material was sampled by Devo offshoot The Wipeouters, enjoyed and used by comic book artists like Daniel Clowes and Ivan Brunetti (both appear here), and adapted into a loud play by one Greg Gibbs, and eventually a couple of little-seen movies. All this history and more is covered by Australian director Matthew Bate, whose doc explores how a phenomenon like "Shut Up, Little Man!" could "go viral" before that became a web-era cliché.
For a while, Bate's movie seems like little more than an imperfect delivery method for the compelling Peter and Ray harangues. Why listen to miscellaneous snippets, padded with dramatizations and accompanied (in annoying pop-doc style) by "corny" clips from the 50s like a pipe-smoking father and his family gathered around a gramophone and an image of Hitler in rainbow colors to represent Ray, when you could just listen to the recordings themselves? For, beyond absurd phrasings and almost parodic meanness, Peter and Ray's arguments offer an unlikely love story of sorts, and a treatise on human relationships and people's superhuman ability to tolerate one another. Shots of people smiling while listening to Ray and Peter on headphones seem particularly pointless, and the "viral" thing is just a trendy tie-in. The parallels with feverishly YouTubed detritus like Christian Bale's infamous captured rant are obvious, the only revelation being that pop-cultural viruses spread more slowly then because there was no internet. The potentially intriguing details of precisely how memes used to spread are only glossed over.
But Shut Up, Little Man becomes more than a rundown of a weird alternative-culture blip when it gets to the rights issues and legal wrangling that accompanied attempts to turn the recordings into a film. Too convoluted to summarize here, the backstabbing went beyond Mitch and Eddie to include Gibbs and a phalanx of producers, writers, and lawyers, all contorting ethics to claim ownership of the words of a couple of oblivious roommates. This disgusting avarice—sadder in its way than Ray and Peter's sordidness—leads to bigger questions about the ethics of the whole enterprise, returning to "original sins" like Mitch and Eddie goading their subjects with prank phonecalls, and going so far as sticking their microphone through the window of the neighboring apartment to achieve clearer recordings, which would eventually bring them profit.
We have one of the third-party producers to thank for footage of the actual Peter Haskett, taken in 1995, a year before his death (Ray died in 1992), in which he is blindsided by the revelation that he's something of a folk hero. Bleary and out-of-it after a lifetime of boozing, he threatens to sue, which elicits nervous laughter, before saying he's actually "too old to care." An Audio Misadventure doesn't try to answer all the questions it raises, but it's an admirably layer-peeling look at the thorniness that can complicate even something so simple and primal as laughing at screaming drunks.
Opens September 16 at IFC Center