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SUNDANCE REVIEW: Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure

The Bottom Line

Imaginative doc about a morally questionable pop phenomenon.

Venue

Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition

Director-screenwriter

Matthew Bate

PARK CITY — A documentary about voyeurism, found art, the creative process, copyright law, the film business, and noisy neighbors. All this is crammed, not always successfully, into "Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure." Cleverly put together by writer-director Matthew Bate, the film takes a bizarre, cult folktale and turns it into a picture that is more provocative than entertaining. It’s the kind of outré entry that should work as late night programming on hipper cable outlets, and as an Internet download.

The story starts like this. In 1987, two friends from the Midwest, Edward Guerriero and Mitch Deprey (aka Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D) move to San Francisco and take an apartment in a place they dub “the Pepto-Bismol palace” for its bright pink façade. Within a few weeks, they start hearing monumental drunken battles from the next apartment. A middle-aged gay man named Peter is berating his straight, pint-sized roommate Raymond, ordering him to “shut up, little man,” to which Raymond, a raging homophobe, might say something like, “I can kill you from a sitting position.” 

For whatever reason, Eddie and Mitch found this amusing and set up a microphone outside their window to record these epic battles and invited friends over to hear the fireworks. They recorded hours and hours of this stuff and it started to spread around underground circles in the Bay Area. Eventually it spawned CDs, a comic book by Dan Clores, a stage play, stories in major media outlets, and three competing projects in Hollywood. Peter and Raymond’s ranting became pre-Internet, viral phenomenon.

Initially, Eddie and Mitch were giving the material away to anyone who wanted to use it. After a while, it became so popular they felt they should be compensated for their efforts and copyrighted the tapes. This, of course, led to bad feelings and broken business deals. The whole enterprise raises a number of questions, none of which can be easily answered. Did these guys own the content in the first place, and had they invaded their neighbors’ privacy to get it? Are the tapes protected by copyright laws?

Much depends on whether Peter and Raymond’s no-so-quiet desperation is considered art. Apparently Bate and his Australian producers thought it was, and so do many of the artists he interviews. But the film is not put together like a conventional talking heads doc. In the course of the film, we see recreations of the fights inside the apartment with actors playing Peter and Raymond, and even the interior of Eddie and Mitch’s apartment was built on a soundstage. Several animated bits, including a hilarious, off-camera tirade from Orson Welles making a commercial, are used to support the idea that this kind of found art is legitimate.

With the cooperation of Eddie and Mitch, Bate carries it a step further. With cameraman Bryan Mason in tow, they track down Peter in a tenderloin flophouse and try to interview him about a time in his life largely lost in the vapors of severe alcoholism. Seeing this poor guy who can barely comprehend what has been made of his life without his consent in a shabby one-room apartment can only feel exploitive, especially when Mitch shoves $100 check at him.

Bate has skillfully assembled this material and ingeniously fit it all together, though it does seem to go on too long. The issues raised here about art and privacy are especially relevant today, and more interesting than the original recordings themselves. In the end, there is an underlying sadness about this whole saga and the lives it captured just for our amusement.

 

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition
Production companies: Filmlab, a Closer Production, South Australian Film Commission, Adelaide Film Festival
Director-screenplay: Matthew Bate
Producer: Sophie Hyde, Matthew Bate
Executive producer: Stephen Cleary, Julie Ryan
Director of photography: Bryan Mason
Production designer: Tony Cronin
Music: Jonny Elk Walsh
Editor: Bryan Mason
Sales: Submarine, The Film Collaborative
No rating, 95 minutes