We’ve all overheard something that was obviously not meant for our ears. Whether it’s a cell phone call in the store or just extra thin walls in a building, we all have access to private information even if we are not actively seeking it. This is a normal part of life. What is not so normal, however, is for civilians to set up recording devices upon finding a constant source of such information and distributing the tapes. Two people did just that with their next door neighbors. The resulting cultural phenomenon, just like Matthew Bate’s documentary of it, is at times hilarious but is mostly discouraging and depressing.
Eddie Lee Sausage (he even signs his name with a drawing of a sausage) and Mitchell D (Mitch Deprey), the men behind the tapes featured in Shut Up Little Man! The Audio Misadventures of Peter and Raymond, moved into a small apartment in the Little Haight area of San Francisco back in 1987.
Within a month, they begin overhearing their neighbors yelling and fighting late into the night. Eddie attempts to have the ever so awkward confrontation with the loud neighbors only to have his life threatened (“I was a killer before you were born!”) and dignity destroyed by Raymond Huffman, or “Little Man.” He is the one who is often told to shut up by his roommate, Peter Haskett. Unable to talk it out, Eddie and Mitch decide to record some of the arguments for their eventual complaint to the police, but both realize something before they contact the authorities: these old men are pretty funny.
Peter and Ray is an odd couple of sorts in that they are two men who live together and do not get along. But they do not have the charm of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison or Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Think of them as Grumpy Old Men with Tourette’s and a hankering for all kinds of booze. Peter insults Ray for being in poor health, Ray insults Peter for being homosexual, and their friend Tony Newton often stops by to join in the cruel epithet-hurling fun.
The drunken obscenities and nonsensical statements that fly out of their mouths are briefly amusing, but quickly become disturbing. I do not know how their original “fans” managed to record 14 hours of shouting matches. Their friends even requested copies of the cassettes chronicling the extreme dysfunction of Peter and Ray, and of course, they went viral. Well, as viral as something can go without the Internet. The tapes were copied and traded, comic books were drawn, puppet shows were televised, songs were written, and a play was even produced by Gregg Gibbs, all without the men being aware of their notoriety among all with a warped sense of humor.
The situation itself is easy to judge. To see everyone from Gibbs to Deprey clamoring over the movie rights to a record of the most contemptible aspects of human nature is almost as sickening as hearing the occasional violence that erupts among Peter, Ray and Tony. Audio verité (recordings of people speaking candidly, often when they do not know they are being recorded) may be an art form, but there is nothing artistic about laughing at or profiting from the daily drama of old alcoholics. As disgusting as some reality shows are, at least the people being exploited know that they are regarded as a joke and are compensated for their humiliating behavior. The most these men ever saw was a few hundred dollars for participating in interviews for the documentary, which incidentally is not nearly as easy to appraise as its topic. This film illuminates the various sides of the movie rights feud and does a great job of explaining the fascination with human depravity. It also uses materials such as old photographs and the audio recordings to re-enact the past in creative ways. I wondered, however, how it was ever made considering the controversy and animosity surrounding getting the consent of the subjects. I also did not appreciate the manufactured ending that was nothing more than another insensitive dig at real people who were literally turned into caricatures. The commentary supplied by various comic artists and fanatics throughout the film did nothing to soften the harsh treatment and skewed perspectives of Peter and Raymond. Person after person treats them as collectibles meant solely for entertainment, and are even disappointed when they have to face the reality that these are real men living pitiful lives.
This documentary falls short because nearly everyone involved with it seems to believe that since the arguments were loud enough to hear outside of the apartment, it is somehow okay for the world to laugh at the screaming individuals. Eddie even goes as far to say that since he did not intend to distribute or profit from the recordings that all of his actions are okay. The issues of morality discussed are beyond just not clearly black and white – they compose a broad spectrum of shady behavior. It would have been great to have voices at the opposite end of the rainbow (away from the pot of gold) standing up for the best interests of the “characters.”
Final Grade: C
TRR Movie Revue by Stephanie Taylor