March 22, 2013

Ownership And Exploitation Collide In SHUT UP LITTLE MAN!


"If you want to talk to me, then shut your fuckin' mouth!"
About a quarter of the way into Shut Up Little Man!, it occurred to me that the basic plot of my second documentary screening was very similar to my first, Winnebago Man.  Both focus on recordings that were passed around without the subject's knowledge and became viral sensations well before the advent of the internet.  Fortunately the similarities end with that basic set up and some of the overall structure.  While Winnebago Man feels somewhat light and charming, there's a darker underbelly to Shut Up Little Man! that the film happily did not shy away from.

In 1987, two twenty-somethings named Mitchell D. and Eddie Lee Sausage moved from their hometown in Wisconsin to San Francisco, taking up residence in a ramshackle pink apartment building they quickly dubbed the Pepto Bismol Palace.  They quickly discovered that their next door neighbors, two older men named Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman, largely spent their days drinking vodka and their nights angrily screaming and cursing at each other.  The walls of the apartment were so thin that the young punks could clearly hear these arguments at all hours of the night, and when Eddie finally tried to confront Ray one evening, Ray threatened to attack him.  Eddie and Mitch retreated to their apartment, stuck a microphone onto the end of a ski pole, held it outside their window, and started recording Peter and Ray's arguments*.  The cantankerous old men could see the microphone and knew they were being recorded, but that just made them fight even more, and over the next few months Eddie and Mitch recorded over 12 hours of profane, homophobic vitriol on cassette tapes.

Mitch and Eddie would make mix tapes (!) for friends and often splice in little tastes of Peter and Ray between tracks.  People started coming over just to listen in live and make whole copies of the unedited recordings.  The cassette tapes would then get copied and passed around, until Mitch and Eddie were finally contacted by the editor of a magazine for audiophiles that focused on found recordings, prank calls and other strange instances of audio verite.  They eventually started selling the tapes under the title Shut Up Little Man, which was a frequent exclamation of Peter.  The liner notes included a disclaimer that essentially renounced any kind of copyright, encouraging the listener to appropriate, adapt and distribute the recordings however they saw fit.  Shut Up Little Man started appearing everywhere, as comics, artwork, a DEVO song, and even a fully staged theater production.

It's at this point that things get really interesting.  Three different parties started to develop some form of a Shut Up Little Man movie: Eddie and Mitch, the L.A. playwright who wrote the stage play, as well as a friend of Mitch who was affiliated with another production company.  All these competing movie projects were faced with a unique challenge: First of all, when the play went up in Los Angeles, Mitch and Eddie made an abrupt about face and added your standard copyright to the tapes they were selling, leading to some debate as to whether there's any sort of legal ground for trying to put the artistic toothpaste back into the tube.  At the same time, it was clear that the two had never secured any kind of permission to tape their neighbors, whether they knew they were being recorded or not.  Regardless of Eddie and Mitch's dubious copyright claim, someone was going to have to track down Peter and Ray to get their legal blessing.

Here is where the tone of the movie abruptly shifts.  Up till now the whole thing has been pretty amusing, seeing old photos of these goofy kids contrasted with the hilariously hateful audio screeds of their cranky neighbors. They even go so far as to recreate certain scenes and incidents, with the older Mitch and Eddie playing themselves and some lookalike actors standing in for the now-deceased Peter and Ray.  There are interviews with some of the quirky artists who were inspired by Shut Up Little Man, as well as a few audiophiles whose basements are filled with old cassette tapes.  But once the search for Peter and Ray begins, the whole thing takes on an unsavory vibe.  Passing around tapes of your crazy neighbors swearing for your own entertainment is one thing, but now there's (potentially) serious money on the table, and it quickly becomes clear that nobody gives a fuck about these poor old guys.  By the time the movie deals come into play, Ray has died and Peter is living alone in a tiny apartment.  We watch as he's given a check for $100 dollars and signs a legal release to one of these would-be producers, and as they explain the entire legend of the Shut Up recordings, Peter seems to only have a cursory understanding of what's going on.  (He clearly doesn't fully grasp the situation or he else wouldn't have settled for $100.)  Eventually he even parrots back his catchphrase, "Shut up little man," just because he senses that it'll make these strangers happy.  It's a moment that's both adorable and heartbreaking.

The film craters out when Mitch tracks down Tony, Peter and Ray's occasional third wheel, who's now living in a single resident occupancy building after spending a few years in prison for assaulting Peter sometime after Ray's death.  He's the only other living witness to the events of the Pepto Bismol Palace, and the guys clearly think it's important to get him on camera.  It takes two visits, a six pack of beer, the promise of money and a whole lot of cajoling through the doorway before he'll even talk to Mitch.  It's a depressing scene, and it's clear that they've totally lost sight of the fact that these are actual people and not just tools to help them make a better documentary.  Again, we see Eddie and Mitch chuckling as Tony does his best Ray impression, which is a little unsettling because it feels like they're laughing at him, not with him; Tony is definitely not in on the joke.

Despite taking a weirdly depressing and uncomfortable turn in the last half hour, it's pretty fascinating to see these two middle aged guys who are still so inextricably tied to something that boils down to sophomoric fucking around and wasting time while stoned.  Eddie Lee Sausage is still selling tapes, CDs, bumper stickers and other paraphernalia out of his basement to this day.  It'd be like if I made a short film after college and then tried to live on it for the next twenty years, except the film was actually just secretly taped footage of my angry ex-military police officer neighbor yelling at me for 15 minutes and questioning my manhood after I had the temerity to host a loud dinner party ON THANKSGIVING.  (This really happened, although sadly I didn't have the foresight to get it on film.)  Eddie makes makes no bones about the fact that he believes he's making art, and if he had taken those recordings and tweaked or altered them in some way I'd probably agree with him.  (I admit, the fake labels for Peter Haskett Vodka are pretty clever.)  But it's just as easy to argue that he and Mitch are essentially just peeping toms, appropriating materials to which they have no ownership and exploiting the "hilarious madness" of two sad old men in the process.

Still, those recordings are pretty damn funny.


*Everytime I typed the words "Peter and Ray," I couldn't help but think of Peter Venkman and Ray Stantz.  The image of Dan Aykroyd snarling, "Go to hell, you fucking cocksucker," and Bill Murray screaming back, "Shut up, little man!" is fantastic.  This should be the plot of Ghostbusters 3.  

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Title: Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure
Director: Matthew Bate
Starring: Eddie Lee Sausage, Mitch D, Peter Haskett, Raymond Huffman
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV/Laptop)