The true story of the “Shut Up Little Man” phenomenon is such:
In 1987, two young mid-western boys – Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D – moved to San Francisco with no particular purpose other than the city seemed like a good place to chase their imprecise dreams. They shared a crummy apartment in a crummy building, and soon discovered that they shared a wall with some incredibly noisy neighbors. The neighbors were two middle-aged men – Peter J. Haskett and Raymond Huffman – with a serious alcohol problem, who would get into lengthy screaming fits with one another. One night, Eddie and Mitchell hung a microphone outside Peter and Raymond’s window and recorded their acidic verbal exchange — which contained the first appearance of Peter’s oft-used catchphrase, “Shut up, little man.” The next night they recorded another. Soon their friends found out about Peter and Raymond and asked if they could come listen. Before long Eddie and Mitchell were making tape cassette copies for friends of friends, and in those hoary pre-World Wide Web days, the tapes became something of a sensation in the audio vérité underground (the world that spawned such “luminaries” as crank-call auteurs The Jerky Boys). These tapes went on to inspire fringe artists in many fields, most notably a comic from Daniel Clowes (Ghost World). The best of Eddie and Mitchell’s recordings were even released professionally. Now there is Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, a documentary about the phenom by Australian filmmaker Matthew Bate.
The documentary is a mixed bag. The story of the “Shut Up Little Man” phenom and the mystery of the men behind it (Peter and Raymond) is inherently fascinating. As is the glimpse we get of the greater 80’s/early-90’s audio vérité cassette exchanging market, which, as someone who came of age in the late 90’s (ie, dawn of the modern Internet), is a completely unknown world — I wanted more than a glimpse; it is enlightening to see this pre-historic version of the age we live in, of sneakily shot camera-phone videos of subway fist-fights and public drunkenness, now almost inescapable on the Net. But I also get that this is the story of “Shut Up Little Man,” not audio vérité itself. What is so interesting about the Peter and Raymond story is how little is known about them. Peter was gay. Raymond seemed homophobic. Why did they live together? Were they friends? Were they lovers? Did they have good times mixed in with the yelling and bickering? And most abstractly intriguing is the fact that while the two drunks were becoming big stars within a particular niche community, inspiring stage plays, comics, cartoons, short films, and an aborted attempt at a Hollywood feature film, they had absolutely no idea any of this was going on. Raymond died in the early 90’s never learning of “Shut Up Little Man,” and An Audio Misadventure‘s most poignant scene is footage (from the mid-90’s) of a weary and out-of-it Peter learning that he has been a secret superstar for many years.
Where the documentary comes up short is it through-line, the story of Eddie and Mitchell. Neither man is particularly interesting or entertaining, and – no offense to them as human beings – it seems as though illegally recording the hilarious arguments of their drunken neighbors is the most interesting thing either man has done with their lives. They are a necessary part of the story of course, but director Matthew Bate makes the mistake of using them as the focal point for the entire story. This has two problems: 1) Eddie and Mitchell, as I said, simply aren’t interesting. 2) By telling the story from their perspective it makes it harder for the film to explore the bigger philosophical aspects of the “Shut Up Little Man” story — which is the questionable moral and legal ramifications of what Eddie and Mitchell did. Initially the two young men printed a statement on their bootleg tape cassettes letting others know that they had free reign to do whatever they liked with the recordings (hence all the comics and such), but at some point in the 90’s, Eddie and Mitchell realized they were missing a chance to make money, and subsequently “copyrighted” the recordings as their intellectual property.
While Bate doesn’t completely steamroll the opposing side – the obvious side, I’d say; that Eddie and Mitchell have no legal right to make money on illegal recordings – the film is pretty blatantly painting Eddie and Mitchell as charming fringe personalities who did this quirky and awesome thing in 1987. But there is an undeniable hint of opportunism here. Another captivating sequence is when Mitchell and the film crew track down Tony, Peter and Raymond’s sometimes third roommate. Tony is a sad old drunk living in a ramshackle studio apartment. He is a man who has been in prison for assault, yet there is still something kind of despicable about seeing Mitchell offering him a plastic sack of alcohol in an attempt to be let inside Tony’s apartment. Mitchell and the cameras succeed and there is an illuminating chat, but you can tell Tony doesn’t really grasp exactly what is happening to him (he too had no idea of the “Shut Up Little Man” phenom of which he was a small part of). In some of the talking head sections the film brushes with deeper issues, like why people were so captivated in the first place by these humorous but also frankly disturbing secret recordings (something that is certainly more relevant now then it was back then, when it could at least be seen as a novelty). But the film never seriously explores the shady exploitation factor of the “Shut Up Little Man” tapes. I guess because the doc itself – with moments like the Tony interview – is continuing the exploitation. This is an issue I would have liked more of. There is something rather horrifying about the idea that some wannabe artsy boobs might secretly be turning you into a Truman Show-like secret star. No one would demonize you for making a personal recording of your neighbors fighting, but at what point does distributing that recording become something of a crime? And what if you start making money off these recordings? Ultimately, though sprouting from compelling subject matter, the film lacks an overreaching point or angle, and I think that angle needed to be a more objective examination of what Eddie and Mitchell did.
All said, the film certainly isn’t a waste of your time. Would make a great Netflix Instant Watch, should that become an option some day. Currently it is making a nationwide arthouse tour.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars