For one of the most compelling
documentaries I've seen on media in a long time (and I take in a
lot of these), Shut Up Little Man! certainly takes its time
in winding up its punch--but, boy, when it lands, it leaves an impact.
Maybe a crater. To be sure, for those who aren't so fascinated by
its themes of cultural/economic exploitation, voyeurism, fandom, transmedia,
and other fancy-sounding topics, Matthew Bate's doc also works quite
well as a chronicle of a particular pop culture phenomenon. If you're
aren't familiar with it (I wasn't), in 1987 a couple of young roommates
in San Francisco got tired of asking their middle-aged neighbors to
pipe down each night and instead started taping their epic, acidic,
and booze-fueled arguments.
It's easy to see why Eddie
Lee Sausage's and Mitchell Deprey's audio recordings of down-and-out
Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman subsequently became a sensation in
the cassette-trading subculture that flourished at the time. There's
of course an inherent authenticity about them, and there's also the
brand of poetry-in-the-everyday--both in spite of and because of how
foul-mouthed the exchanges are--that modern dramatists have tried to
evoke going back to O'Neil. As graphic novelist Daniel Clowes remarks
at one point, there are probably countless "Pete and Rays" going
at it in big cities the world over, but we just never have access to
them. "We" being college-educated, pseudo-hipsters of the type who
both appear in the doc and are likely to see it.
No doubt about it, there's
an element of class-consciousness running quietly throughout Shut
Up Little Man! Indeed, it's easy to imagine the same situation
occurring in mid-century San Francisco, except that someone like Kerouac
would have shown up at the noisy pad next door with a bottle of rotgut
and tried to make friends. If that didn't work, maybe a brawl would
have ensued. But by the late 1980's "technology" presented another
out, and it's in this way that one comes to sense a subtle revenge
motive at work that the doc never explicitly addresses: "You intimated
us and gave us sleepless nights, but now we have the last laugh (literally)
as our recordings of you have made us well-known but not changed your
lives one iota."
The reason that subtext such
as this is so hard to detect in Shut Up Little Man!
is that for a good portion of its runtime it comes across a typical
"celebratory" doc--one that invites you to learn about a special
moment in history, and then catches up with all the players today, perhaps
with a bittersweet tone creeping in from the edges. "Isn't all of
this so cool?" Bate seems to be asking, and occasionally the doc's
own facile attempts at the clever-hipster approach (e.g., the kitschy
use of 1950's industrials) make you feel that he is basically aligned
with Mitch and Eddie, the latter of whom hawks Pete & Ray merchandise
to this day.
But then gradually, through
recounting various media adaptations of the recordings (some successful,
some not), Shut Up Little Man!
takes a turn into deeper waters. And darker ones. The sharks smell the
green blood of cash in the water and start gnashing at each other while
Pete and Ray live out the rest of their lives in squalor and anonymity.
In the end, the nice guys from the Midwest who innocently made some
recordings a couple of decades ago come across as at best pathetically
intrusive (trying to get to the bottom of whether Pete and Ray were
actually lovers) and at worst nauseatingly exploitive (selling copies
of death certificates, a move rationalized by they're being edgy "art").
To his vast credit, Bate doesn't suddenly and simplistically turn
on Mitch and Eddie. In fact, many viewers may strongly disagree with
my indictment of them above. That's because Bate pulls back so that
we can take in the bigger picture, and in doing so respects the audience's
intelligence in noticing all the complexities in what at first seems
like such a straightforward narrative. Like many really accomplished
docs, the editing/structuring is done in such a way that it contains
own counterarguments and internal rebuttals.
In short, you go into Shut Up Little Man! for the promise of sheer loudness and outrageousness, but you leave with your head quietly buzzing with ideas, maybe even one or two new convictions about the nexus of morality, media, and humanity... and, if you're lucky, a bit of self-reflection concerning your own role in all of the above.