I first heard the tapes on an early episode of This American Life, back when it was still called Your Radio Playhouse. They were recorded in San Francisco in the late 1980s, when two guys from Wisconsin named Eddie and Mitch moved in to an apartment building whose horrifying pink coloration prompted them to nickname it "The Pepto-Bismol Palace." The building was, they say now, "made out of snot and cardboard," and the paper-thin walls meant that the new residents were privy to every angry, profane, drunken argument between neighbors Peter and Raymond. Out of a mixture of frustration and fascination, they started taping those fights and altercations. They started sharing them with friends. Those friends started sharing them with their friends, and a pre-digital, pre-Internet viral phenomenon was born.
The tangled tale of Pete and Ray and Mitch and Eddie is the basis of Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure, Matthew Bate's documentary examination of those tapes, and all that they wrought. By the time Mitch and Eddie left the "Pepto Palace," they'd accumulated some 14 hours of tape, and to this day, they're not all that sure how the recordings of their vodka-fueled neighbors spread across the country and permeated the subculture. But that they did, and that subculture responded; the tapes inspired comic book interpretations, puppet performances, music mixes, and a stage production, not to mention reams of mainstream press coverage.
So what was the appeal? Bate asks the question, though perhaps not as thoroughly as he might have, and his answers are tantalizing yet incomplete. The Pete & Ray recordings were primo "audio verité," spread via a network of tape-traders fascinated by this found audio footage, and the filmmaker glances at the pull of tapes like these (and other famed bits of recovered sound, like Orson Welles's notorious "frozen peas" outtakes). Why are we drawn to them? Is it voyeurism? Misanthropy? Maybe even identification? We're laughing at Raymond and Peter, but we're also fascinated by them. Why?
Whatever the reason, people loved them, so before long (of course) Hollywood came a-calling. By 1995, there were three competing film projects based on the tapes--and thus, all kinds of questions about who actually owned the story. Was it Mitch and Eddie, who made the recordings? Was it Greg Gibbs, whose stage production had attracted Hollywood attention (in spite of the fact that, from the clips shown here, it was apparently quite terrible)? Or was it, perhaps, Peter and Raymond themselves? Fancy that idea.
The notion that the argumentative subjects might have rights to their own life sent one of the would-be producers to finally find Peter in the mid-1990s (Raymond was already dead; Peter would follow not long after). To protect himself, he made a videotape of the old man signing the contract and accepting his check for $100 American dollars. But he also captured Peter having the whole thing laid out for him by a visiting reporter--the tapes, the phenomenon, his own underground fame. "When do I sue?" he asks, not unreasonably, before voicing his desire to have Brad Pitt play him in the film version.
Up to and around this scene, Shut Up Little Man is frankly a little thin--there's not quite a feature documentary's worth of material here, and catching up with the guys who made the tapes isn't as interesting as, say, catching up with the guys on the tapes might have been (director Ben Steinbauer had better luck, since the subject of his similar and superior documentary Winnebago Man is still among us). Director Bate gets a bit too tangled up in the weeds of the Hollywood story, and doesn't push as far as we'd like in examining the allure of these tapes, and others like them--he seems content with an obvious and too-explicit montage comparing "like" culture and web anonymity with spectators at Roman coliseums.
It is only in the closing sections that Bate starts to get at something deeper and more complex in the story. First, he complicates our feelings about our ostensible protagonists; Eddie apparently subsidizes a comfortable suburban lifestyle by selling "Shut Up Little Man" merchandise, and not just CDs, but disconcerting items like reproductions of Pete and Ray's death certificates. And then we see a tape of Mitch tracking down Tony, the "intermittent roommate" who survived them, and provides a living, breathing glimpse into exactly the kind of people we've been laughing at for the past 90 minutes. In finding him, Bate finds the real tragedy of these guys, and of their story.
Video & Audio:
The anamorphic widescreen image is, for the most part, quite pleasing; the film's crisp HD cinematography is nicely represented, with attractive saturation and good skin tones. The 5.1 surround mix is a bit more problematic, since so much of the material (on the tapes, at least) was originally recorded with less-than-perfect fidelity, and thus sounds pretty rough. But the mix is as clean as possible, while new interviews and music tracks are crystal clear.
A 2.0 stereo mix is also included. No subtitles are available.
The bonus features are disappointingly slim, considering the wealth of additional material available on the subject. "Return to the 'Pepto'" (8:34)--presented, we're told several times, by American Express--is a deleted scene, in which Eddie and Mitch visit the old building and meet the current resident of their old apartment. It's moderately interesting, but its exclusion is no great loss. They also mention that the used to play the tapes loudly for their neighbors to quiet them; that's not mentioned in the film itself, but it is shown in the deleted scene "You, Sir, Sound Like an Idiot" (1:28). Next is an "Extended Interview with Ivan Brunetti" (5:24), one of the most thoughtful of the picture's interview subjects. The "Recreations" (3:27) are just that--brief snippets of the tapes and accompanying recreations, some of which were worked into the final film.
Director Bate takes something of a leap in his last scene, moving the documentary into a flight of fancy that is a bit of a risk. But it's a move that ultimately allows a dose of humanity that is, by that point, most welcome. Shut Up, Little Man: An Audio Misadventure is an uneven picture, full of funny moments, well-made reconstructions, and clever stock footage, yet ultimately unsure of exactly where it's going and what it's saying. But in its closing scenes, it arrives at a destination that provokes thought, and reflection, and a bit of self-examination.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.