Esoteric pop culture went viral before the internet. Proof: in 1987, two Wisconsin punks started tape-recording their queer neighbors’ vicious fights; eventually, the tapes were released as “Shut Up! Little Man”, and spawned a rabid cult made of cassette-tape collectors, indie comic book creators, playwriters, general Pavement-era hipsters, and weirdos all over the world (well…America!). Matthew Bate’s documentary tells two stories: one about the two men fighting, the other about the two men recording it. Of course, the stories intersect to form an eclectic documentary that’s a quirky, kinda-exploitative-certainly-voyeuristic personal history and populist art criticism about a true-viral success that used magazines and the U.S. postal system instead of blogs and Twitter. The best part is, Shut Up! Little Man is available onDemand and through other streaming video services (Google it!), so you can go watch it immediately after reading this article!
Verbal conflict is both scary and compelling. Some people totally lock up, shut down, and curl into a ball when they hear screaming: these are the children of divorce. Other people get a sick thrill out of listening to loud arguments–it’s private, it’s vulnerable, it’s embarrassing–and hearing that gets them off: these are children who’s parents stayed together. I fit the latter category, so listening to the Shut Up! Little Man tapes, for me, is a “Fun Freudian Fulfillment of Childhood Desire” (FFFOCD). Peter is an overweight homosexual with a wry wit and a subtle lisp; Raymond is a raging homophone riddled with sexual repression and a propensity for physical altercation. However, they’re both agoraphobes completely crippled by alcoholism and government pension checks. Even though they fight, they’re perfect for each other: who would want to live with such sad strange weirdos? Plus, when they got drunk, they said the most hilarious shit! Accusing one another of false giggles–“You always giggle falsely! You don’t have a decent giggle in your body.”–Raymond’s seething gay bashing that sounds way too defensive–“I hate queers! I like girls!”–or Peter’s anti-zen mantra–“Shut up! Little man!” screamed over and over to both perpetuate and disarm the conflict. These middle aged drunks are hilarious! But the more you think about their relationship, the stranger it gets. Speculations that they were lovers do not seem unfounded (all that testosterone trapped in a slummy apartment, it sounds like a Tom Waits song). Isn’t it invasive to take such an intimate look into the lives of two sad drunks? Yes, definitely. Who would do such a thing?
Two men named Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchel D. violated their neighbors privacy and accidentally made their very own piece of pop culture white noise. The “punks” that made the tapes are also discussed in the film. Punk is a confusing word: I think Sausage and D. are better described as dudes who wore flannel and a Charles Bukowski t-shirts, pre-hipsters probably. Initially, they made the tapes to document evidence of their neighbors who were clearly disturbing the peace; then, they realized how funny the arguments were, and slipped snippets into mix-tapes for friends. Eventually the Shut Up! Little Man tapes were distributed through Bananafish magazine (ultra-hip!) and Matador records released a greatest hits CD (you know, the label who was also putting out Pavement, Guided By Voices, and Yo La Tengo). Sausage and D. were famous! Famous to a hyper-specific group of pop-culture snobs who trade media instead of purchasing it. That didn’t stop Eddie and Michel from trying to take Raymond and Peter’s story to Hollywood for big summer blockbuster treatment! In a sentence a Hollywood producer pitches the coolest idea ever: “Get Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando on the set of a shitty one room apartment; get the alcohol flowing; and just watch them scream and fight and abuse each other in a three day shoot.” That would be the perfect movie. Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons (including a fascinating piece of copyright litigation), a cool movie was never made and a poorly produced independent version came out to the approval of no one. Framing Sausage and D. inevitably got greedy and lost the punk credos that inspired them to make the tapes. Just like Peter and Raymond would fight on rent day or when the vodka was gone, everybody becomes a pissy drama queen when money gets involved.
My favorite part about Shut Up! Little Man is its tenacity to inspire countless remixes and adaptations. Sausage and D. included a mention in the first tapes liner notes stating anyone could use Shut Up! Little Man however the listener saw fit. Plenty of folks took that to heart including: various indie-comic authors who adapted Peter and Raymond’s fights into strips (everything about the pair’s gritty rawness fits the post-Crumb comix); plenty of Youtube homages with cartoons, puppets, and muppets; and full out dramatic productions of the drunken drama at the core of Raymond and Peter’s relationship. What is it that makes these two men so compelling? And is recording your drunk-bum neighbors art? These are the two questions the movie seeks to answer. Both Peter and Raymond are dead but there are some unreleased interviews trying to see their response to becoming “popular” in a mean, ironic, 90’s kind of way. The movie also has an interview with Tony–R&P’s third sometimes-roommate–that adds even more layers of intrigue into the Raymond/Peter love-story.