Expletives and Ethics
(Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, Matthew Bate, Australia, 2011, 89 mins)
At one time or another, everyone has had those neighbours – the kind that have midweek parties at Spinal Tap-esque volumes, arguments that can shake windows and bypass brick walls, and, worst of all, are entirely unconcerned with the effects they have on those around them.
Reason doesn’t usually have much of an effect on these people; you need another way to get even. For most, it’s a call to the police, but, for the subjects of Matthew Bate’s feature length documentary Shut Up Little Man!, revenge came in the form of a microphone, a ski pole, and several hours worth of blank tapes.
Moving to San Francisco in the late eighties, two archetypal postgrad stoners, Eddie Guerriero and Mitch Deprey, shack up in a shabby pink apartment with their collection of Bukowski t-shirts, bongs and Pixies posters. Through their cigarette-paper-thin walls, they’re subjected nightly to the vicious arguments between their habitually sozzled elderly neighbours, Ray and Peter. After Ray, a creatively-cursing, homophobic, Roy Orbison lookalike, threatens to kill Mitch when he asks him to keep the noise down, the boys break out the cassette deck.
Created ostensibly as evidence for the cops, the tapes began to gather a cult following and were passed around in the underground circles of San Fran before eventually travelling out into the wider world. The drunken old-timers ranting ultimately spawned a comic book by Ghost World creator Dan Clores, a stage play, coverage in the national press, and three competing film projects. A few battered cassette tapes from a dingy pink apartment had birthed a pre-internet viral phenomenon.
Obviously keen to establish just what the recordings are, Bate devotes the first quarter of the film to detailing their contents and the story behind their creation. The arguments between the violent, gay-bashing Ray and the undeniably camp, bitchy Peter – relayed here with the aid of animation, visually striking re-enactments and dubbing – are undoubtedly hilarious. Throwing up some unforgettable quotes (the film’s title comes from Peter’s trademark putdown), it’s hard not to be glad for Deprey and Guerriero’s actions when gems such as ‘if you want to talk to me, shut your fucking mouth’ and ‘don’t call me “goodnight”’ are the result.
But, as Bate’s film progresses, Shut Up Little Man! becomes more than the simple, albeit entertaining, retelling of the creation of a cult audio nasty. Unsurprisingly, it’s the introduction of cash into the equation that changes things. With the Peter and Ray tapes utilised in everything from a stage play to a comic book, and with Hollywood hankering for a filmic adaptation, the commercialisation and potential for monetary gain brings Mitch and Eddie into conflict with several other claimants for control of the recordings.
From here, Shut Up becomes more an examination of greed and ethics than a comedy. No longer merely a childish prank, the fact that Peter and Ray’s likenesses and voices are making everyone but them a very healthy living – the comic book alone retails for $10.95 – is one that raises some pertinent questions: who owns the copyright to the tapes? What compensation, if any, are the unwitting ‘stars’ entitled to? Were the recordings an invasion of privacy? Are the tapes an example of cruel voyeurism or found art?
These quandaries are something Mitch and Eddie are very aware of, with the pair repeatedly struggling to justify their actions. Terming their recordings as ‘art’ and ‘audio verité’ – ‘aural truth,’ but actually more like ‘secret recording’ – as well as memorably stating that any sounds that travel outside an apartment become public domain, the pair, despite professions of guilt, never seem to show any real regret.
Of course, Bate is too even-handed a documentarian to vilify the pair; he leaves it to the culmination of their search for Peter, who is painted as a sort of urban Sasquatch – glimpsed, heard of in hearsay, but never pinned down – to highlight the true nature of the men seeking control of those foul-mouthed tirades.
It’s here, glimpsing the man behind the expletives, that provides the surprising emotional heft of Bate’s film. After his portrayal in cartoons, re-enactments and plays throughout the course of Shut Up, the revelation of Peter as a person rather than a character – as nothing more than a lonely old man – is a sobering one.
Cleverly, Bate shows this section to the talking heads of the piece – the artists, fans, and writers who helped turn the tapes in a cult phenomenon. Their reactions, as laughter turns to a pregnant silence that suggests introspection, says a lot about the disconnecting nature – between ‘character’ and person – of entertainment.
With nothing to show for his life but empty bottles, Peter cuts a pitiable figure, but that doesn’t stop Eddie, Mitch and their rivals from continuing to try and exploit him. As they shove a paltry $100 cheque at him – as a point of reference, a single order of CDs nets the pair $40 – it’s hard not to feel disgusted. Likewise, as a onetime roommate relays – thanks to another slim cheque and a six-pack – that Peter and Ray were the best of friends the vast majority of the time, Bate highlights yet another issue of the modern age – the synecdochical extension of a single moment to stand for someone’s entire being.
A much more intelligent film than it first appears, and visually stunning at points – the re-enactments, shot with dark, dingy filters and clever use of focus, wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood production – Shut Up Little Man! is a relevant, even-handed and entertaining feature-length debut for Matthew Bate.
Despite retelling a tale from the analogue age, the issues raised are even more relevant today, where your every failure, embarrassment and humiliation can be captured by those around you and shared instantly with the world. Shut Up Little Man! may draw in audiences with the promise of coarse, hilarious wordplay, but it will leave them with some important questions on the nature of privacy, and on human beings’ capacity for voyeurism and schadenfreude. And, of course, on the merits of soundproofing.