Going viral, back in the day
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Sep 23, 2011
For anyone who thinks that viral entertainment started with a panda sneezing and ended with Sad Keanu, let your elders school you: Even in the 1990s, the tail end of the baby-boom generation enjoyed its version of weird, wonderful "found" materials that started as a shared in-joke and wound up a bona fide coast-to-coast phenomenon. You kids today, with your Internets and your YouTubes. Back then, we roughed it, passing cassette tapes and 'zines back and forth like so much hipper-than-thou samizdat.
That unbridled brio that fueled so many underground scenes propels "Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure," Matthew Bate's compulsively watchable film about one of the late 20th century's most influential proto-viral sensations. In 1987, Midwesterners Mitch Deprey and Eddie Lee moved to San Francisco's Lower Haight neighborhood, taking up residence in an apartment house they dubbed the "Pepto Bismol Palace" for its lurid pink paint job. Living next door - behind paper-thin walls - were Ray Huffman and Peter Haskett, longtime roommates and raging alcoholics whose epic profanity-laced arguments were soon keeping Mitch and Eddie awake and strangely entertained.
Partly out of punk-rock mischief, partly out of sheer self-defense, the young men began taping their neighbors, eventually sharing their most surreally cruel invective with friends. Those friends taped Mitch and Eddie's original tapes, and soon a genuine underground phenom was born, eventually inspiring the likes of comic book author Dan Clowes and the band Devo, and propelling Mitch and Eddie into unexpected creative, legal and ethical quandaries.
Bate chronicles the whole wooly story with admirable clarity and resourcefulness, even when a lack of visual material forces him to resort too often to reenactment and dramatization. He captures the giddy, voyeuristic thrill of hearing Ray and Peter go hammer and tongs in arguments so vile, yet so pathetic, that their audiences felt simultaneously repelled, amused, horrified and ashamed.
As pop morphology, "Shut Up Little Man!" recalls Doug Pray's "Hype!," which so artfully traced growth of the Seattle music scene. Like grunge and so many nascent art movements, "Shut Up Little Man!" followed the same sad arc of creation, discovery, appreciation and ultimate destruction by way of its own popularity.
But Bate goes even further, seeking to discover just who Ray and Peter were - and were to each other - ultimately managing to track down an interview filmed with Peter before he died in 1996.
The filmmaker also takes viewers into the thicket of legal issues prompted by the myriad appropriations of Mitch and Eddie's tapes, which in true punk spirit they made available to well-intentioned artists. When more cynical forces (and, inevitably, Hollywood) came into play, however, they had to confront their own fuzzy roles in Ray and Peter's exploitation, eventually copyrighting the arguments they taped.
The lines between the private and the public, and between homage and ridicule may be blurry (Bate very smartly includes later example of similar audio verite, from Orson Welles arguing with the director of a frozen peas commercial to Christian Bale's outburst on the set of "Terminator Salvation" - which itself was remixed with "Shut Up Little Man," resulting in a perfect double helix of viral culture). But "Shut Up Little Man!" is at its most improbably affecting as a double portrait of two extraordinary relationships, with Mitch and Eddie growing up on-screen from two would-be merry punksters into thoughtful, reflective middle-aged men. At its core, "Shut Up Little Man!" is about youthful hopes, frayed dreams and friendship - at its most irrational, deep-seated and sustaining.
Contains pervasive profanity and adult themes.