Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure
Director Matthew Bate offers a probing, frequently fascinating look at the cult phenomena that formed around Raymond and Peter, a pair of drunken, foulmouthed roommates, whose verbal (and occasionally physical) smackdowns were recorded by their bemused young neighbors, then traded on tape by enthusiastic audiophiles back when cassettes were still king. But Bate doesn’t settle for simply offering fans of those infamous underground tapes the opportunity to meet both the cheeky creators and their slurring subjects; he takes it a step further by actually inviting us to explore the anthropological implications of our compulsive voyeurism, and reveals how the Internet has only served to fuel that somewhat unsavory tendency by blurring our concept of personal privacy.
The year was 1987. Eddie Guerriero (aka Eddie Lee Sausage) and Mitch Deprey (aka Mitchell D.) were two Midwestern kids seeking to start a new life in San Francisco who moved into a decrepit tenement building with paper-thin walls and a horrid pink exterior that quickly earned it the nickname "The Pepto Bismol Palace." Just a few days after moving in, Eddie was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of his two next-door neighbors -- a tart-tongued queen named Peter and his alcoholic, openly homophobic roommate Raymond -- having a heated, profanity-laden row. At first Eddie was incensed, but over time he became fascinated by the verbal firebombs being hurdled on the other side of the wall, and invited Mitchell to listen in. Instinctively, Eddie and Mitchell strung a microphone on the end of a ski pole, and carefully held it just outside Raymond and Peter’s window. It was the first in what would ultimately become volumes of recordings, which ultimately spread like wildfire as voyeuristic audio enthusiasts began trading the tapes on the underground market. Before long, there was a play based on Raymond and Peter’s antics, and later, multiple parties even tried to get a film deal off the ground. But the more popular the Raymond-and-Peter phenomenon became, the more questions it raised about privacy and who held the copyright on the recordings. Years later, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. reunite in an attempt to air out old grievances and to try to interview Peter (Raymond had died years prior). But the further along they get, the more complicated the situation becomes.
Admit it -- when you’re sitting home and you hear your neighbors’ voices drifting through the wall, you perk up a bit. Are they fighting again? Perhaps having a particularly acrobatic round of lovemaking? Whatever the case, our curiosity often gets the best of us in situations where privacy and personal space conflict, and when those neighbors are Raymond and Peter, it’s easy to see how that initial curiosity can quickly spiral into obsession. Those who have listened to the Raymond-and-Peter tapes over the years will no doubt embrace the opportunity to hear Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. reveal how they came to capture audio gold, but the reason Shut Up Little Man! is more than a mere pop-culture origin story is the way Bate frames the events in a cultural context, then opens it up for discussion amongst a variety of artists and audiophiles, including Ghost World author Daniel Clowes. Without their unique observations, it’s likely that Bate wouldn’t have had the material for a full-length feature. Likewise, an extended segment tracing the multiple efforts to turn the Raymond-and-Peter tapes into a feature film is fascinating in the way it reveals how our hunger for fame can drive us to commit transgressions that we may later regret, and a thoughtful meditation on the nature of ownership under such convoluted circumstances offers genuine food for thought in an era when repurposed "found footage" can warrant as much praise as original works of art.
With a dynamic visual style that recalls such previous documentaries as The Kid Stays in the Picture and American: The Bill Hicks Story, Shut Up Little Man! only falters when Bate attempts to fall back on reenactments. Though it makes logistical and contextual sense to show Eddie and Mitchell in the act of confronting, taunting, and recording their belligerent neighbors, actually watching a pair of middle-aged men attempt to portray their younger, more-rebellious selves is ultimately more of a distraction than a narrative enhancement.
By landing a crucial yet difficult interview late in the film with a man who occasionally lived with Raymond and Peter in the Pepto Bismol Palace, Mitchell gets some satisfying answers to a few lingering questions regarding the pair and even manages to give the story something of a poignant conclusion. It’s hardly the most-interesting aspect of a documentary that dares to discuss some particularly challenging issues regarding art and privacy, but it does manage to offer a sense of closure to a story that seemed too strange to be true and to humanize a pair of men who seemed to revel in their inhumanity.