January 30, 2012

Profits and Profanity

Print More

In 1987, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. moved into a decrepit apartment in San Francisco’s lower Haight district. There, in a dilapidated pink hovel they dubbed the Pepto-Bismol Palace, they discovered the comedic wonders of their alcoholic neighbors: Peter and Ray. Startled and a little frightened by the brash arguments seeping through their walls, Eddie and Mitch began poking a microphone attached to a ski pole out their window and recording them. The recordings, characterized by their coarse language and repetitive nature, soon became a source of amusement amongst their friends. Little by little, they went the-80s-version-of-viral, attracting a sizable following and the attention of many playwrights, artists and filmmakers.

In the 2010 documentary Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure, director Matthew Bate chronicles Eddie and Mitch’s journey, from their decision to move to San Francisco to the modern day as they attempt to reconnect with the subjects of the tapes. Through interviews, reenactments and inspired editing, the film raises a number of probing questions on voyeurism, morality and the nature of art. Were Eddie and Mitch exploiting their downtrodden drunken neighbors? Could the two ethically profit from the sale of these tapes? And finally, do surreptitious audio recordings count as art?  While Bate confronts these issues with impressive thoroughness and care, Shut Up Little Man! leaves viewers feeling distinctly uneasy. Unfortunately for Bate, the excellent structure and imaginative editing are overshadowed by Eddie, Mitch and their cohorts’ manipulation and greed.

The story of the tapes is configured like a traditional Hollywood success story. Our protagonists meet, stumble upon a brilliant idea. Slowly and unexpectedly, that idea brings them fame. Fame leads to greed and greed leads to a falling out with a friend and colleague. The audience has no trouble relating to this familiar story arc; we get lost, however, when it comes to the people involved. Eddie and Mitch are not talented; their success has little to do with artistic skill, but rather a series of accidents and a few entrepreneurial choices. And yet in interviews over 20 years later, the two men still discuss the tapes as though they were the result of brilliant artistry. They briefly express pity for their subjects, but for the most part, Peter and Ray are seen as mere tools for the success of their more fortunate neighbors.

While Peter and Ray’s drunken ramblings form a disquieting and poignant portrait of American destitution, they can be undeniably funny. Ray, an aggressive and embittered homophobe, spends hours arguing with Peter, his derisive gay roommate. Their vodka-drenched battles are typified by Ray’s repeated homophobic slurs and Peter’s scathing replies. Their retorts range from simple threats, a menacing “someday I will kill you,” to the riotously trivial, “you always giggle falsely! You haven’t got a decent giggle in you.” They are prime examples of the then-fresh genre of “audio verité:” real-life recordings made surreptitiously of unsuspecting speakers. Now though, in the era of cameraphones and YouTube sensations, the shock value of the tapes is somewhat lost. We can watch everything from Lindsay Lohan’s last nip slip to the US military’s latest disgrace, so the auditory voyeurism is far from astonishing.

Luckily, Bryan Mason’s brilliant editing saves the clips from sounding archaic. Shortly after one interviewee compares Peter and Ray’s relationship to that of an old married couple, Mason overlays a particularly vulgar interaction over black-and-white footage of 50s marital bliss. Later, he presents a series of Eddie and Mitch’s cassettes spliced together with bits of Christian Bale’s famous rant and an old tape of an unknowing Orson Welles. Each new method illustrates an incredible inventiveness that keeps the documentary fresh in spite of its tiresome subjects.

So, while Eddie and Mitch are as tedious as they are manipulative, the film is salvaged by its meticulous editing and remarkable structure. On one hand, Shut Up Little Man! is a provoking study in human relationships and the morality of voyeurism. On the other, it is an unsettling portrait of blatant exploitation. But even if Eddie and Mitch’s shameless behavior disturbs and unnerves the viewers, the way this film tackles issues of privacy and manipulation may well be worth the discomfort.

Original Author: Gina Cargas