Doc of the Day: Shut Up, Little Man! An Audio Misadventure Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Shut Up, Little Man! An Audio Misadventure

Posted in Days of Docs by - January 25, 2012

Jokes and phenomena have gone viral since long before the internet was around. This doc tells the story of one such analog meme, about two very cranky old men and the guys who recorded their arguments.

Poster courtesy of The Loft Cinema.

Dir. Matthew Bate, 2011, 90 min

Humans are by nature voyeuristic. That quality is intrinsic to our interaction with all art, but with movies in particular. When you watch a film, you are a fly on the wall of constructed lives, peeping in on what happens to other people. This tendency can also lead to… less healthy activities, and the Internet has magnified the quality and its negative effects a hundredfold. If you have an embarrassing moment, the odds are good that it will end up on YouTube. No one is really comfortable with that, and yet we all irresistibly click on the videos promising lurid, ridiculous content, hoping to see people at their worst. And admit it: if your neighbors were constantly having hilarious arguments, you’d try to get it on film, wouldn’t you?

That’s what “Eddie Lee Sausage” and “Mitchell D.” did, only this was before the Internet was around. In 1987, the two friends moved into a ramshackle building in San Francisco, and discovered that the inhabitants of the apartment next door could be quite boisterous. Raymond Huffman and Peter Haskett were a pair of old, jobless drunks who ceaselessly got into loud, bizarre, profanity-laden quarrels. Raymond was a bigoted redneck, Peter an irritating homosexual who would often tell him to “shut up, little man!” The exact nature of their relationship was unclear, but they stayed together despite all the unpleasantness. Huffman died in 1992, Haskett in 1996, both of diseases stemming from alcoholism.

Eddie and Mitchell recorded their neighbors’ unpleasantness, accumulating around fourteen hours total of material, and shared some of it with friends. From there, Raymond and Peter became an underground sensation. Their colorful, endlessly quotable dialogue became the subject of alternative magazines, comic book art, and theater performances. In 1992, they began selling official tapes of the audio. There was even a movie adaptation, released in 2001.

The “Shut Up, Little Man” phenomenon demonstrates how memes worked before the Internet. Other examples include “Kilroy was here” and “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” (Which was started by the same guy who made the Obama “Hope” poster, incidentally. Don’t ever say I don’t teach you things). In-jokes have been making their rounds through culture since the beginning of time. The Internet just rapidly accelerates the creation, proliferation, and exhaustion of memes. In the analog age, it took years for stuff like the outtakes from Orson Welles’ frozen peas commercial to get passed around. There was an entire subculture devoted to “audio verite,” the circulation of “found sound:” crank calls, unwittingly overheard temper tantrums, and more. Digital has effectively killed it off, but this doc features a few of the old enthusiasts, recounting how they first discovered Raymond and Peter.

Shut Up, Little Man! takes this one meme and turns it inside out for all of its implications. The doc doesn’t explore any of those ideas very thoroughly, but it makes a good case study for analyzing similar phenomena. In addition to viral audio and found sound culture, the movie explores the thorny ethical issues at play. Eddie and Mitchell originally recorded the cranks next door because they feared that something violent would go down, but they eventually ended up profiting from those cranks. Raymond and Peter’s permission was never sought for any of this. It’s a difficult question, made even more difficult in an age where everyone carries a camera in their pocket. And then there’s the basic fact that, at its core, people enjoy this audio because of Schadenfreude, and those arguments, while undeniably funny, come from real pain and real people.

The film also delves into the eternal question of what is and isn’t art. The tapes on their own aren’t art. A YouTube video of a bus brawl isn’t art. But if you draw a comic using the transcribed words of the audio as dialogue, or have puppets lip-synch to the tapes? It becomes art. If you find this a strange concept to grasp, this movie does a great job of explaining how context is what separates art from non-art. It tickled me to see it, but it may bore you silly.

But this is a hard movie to be bored by. Befitting its subject, it has a sly, mischievous tone. Actors reenact Raymond and Peter’s arguments in a heightened, ridiculous style. It makes frequent use of 1950’s stock footage to humorous ends, illustrating someone hearing to the tapes for the first time by depicting a chipper commercial family sitting around the record player, cheerfully listening to geezers hurling expletives at each other. A B-movie plays as Eddie describes the sleeplessness the fighting caused him early in his stay at the apartment. The doc’s structure is impeccable, focusing at first only on Eddie and Mitchell as they meet their new neighbors and make the tapes, and then expanding to include talking heads as it goes on. It lets you feel like you’re watching the rise of the meme in condensed time.

At the very least, Shut Up, Little Man! is great for a laugh. If you want, you can just Google up the audio and give it a listen, but I did that, and I think hearing it within the context of the movie makes it funnier. Knowing the full story behind the tapes changes them from an amusing distraction to an in-joke that you are now a part of. The documentary is mostly shallow in looking at what the success of the tapes really means in cultural and artistic terms, but it’s at least good for sparking interesting discussion. Hopefully, it will at least make you ponder the stories behind the people you see in viral videos, and that would be a worthy influence.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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