Living in the age of instantaneous entertainment via YouTube, iTunes and blogging it’s difficult to explain the rise of audio-verite cassette tape trading to the unfamiliar. The recordings that are the subject of this engaging documentary by Australian director Matthew Bate started life in the late 80s as guerrilla recordings of the fights between the noisy, alcoholic neighbors of two young men, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D., who had recently made the journey west from suburban Wisconsin to the Lower Haight section of San Francisco, CA.
The neighbors, Ray Huffman and Peter Haskett, were the ultimate odd couple: Peter a flamboyant openly gay man and Ray a raging, angry homophobe, both heavy drinkers whose drinking exacerbated their already tense relationship. The taping started with a cheap microphone and a ski pole, as an attempt to document the fights in case of future violence, after Huffman allegedly threatened Mitchell D. Yet as the taping continued, Eddie and Mitchell found themselves fascinated by the late-night arguments, eventually making copies for friends, who began distributing them through the then-active tape trader network.
The documentary is largely about what happened next- what started small soon expanded to inspire CDs and other merchandise, much of which is still sold via the Shut Up Little Man website. The inevitable Hollywood feeding frenzy even resulted in a stage play, and three separate (ultimately failed) attempts at making a fictional movie based on Ray and Peter’s relationship (finally realized when “Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth,” a movie based on the characters, had a limited run in the early part of the 00s). A few underground comic books were also inspired by Peter and Ray, as were a variety of songs (including one by Devo spinoff Devo’s Wipeouters with the lyrics consisting entirely of soundbites from the tapes).
The degree of humor to be found in the original tapes depends largely on the taste and patience of the listener, as the language is foul, the personalities coarse, and at times violent. Nonetheless they are undeniably a fascinating document. Not just for the look into the lives of people who are rarely noticed, or for the extreme juxtaposition between the two, but for Haskett’s colorful language. Some of his accusations toward Huffman: “You always giggle falsely,” “I got a decent dinner ready. Nothing happened with the dinner because you crucified it”- usually followed by the inevitable “shut up little man!” – occasionally hint at a gift of language, which might have served Haskett well in his previous life in the advertising industry. Huffman’s responses are a lot baser and less clever- and occasionally borderline psychotic, accompanied by shouted affirmations like “I hate all queers!”- but the relationship between the two is endlessly fascinating. It’s also still amazing that their arguments made it around the world via traded cassettes and snail mail, far beyond the ugly bright pink apartment building not-so-affectionately known as the Pepto Bismol Palace.
The questions that occur to the listener- why are these two living together if they hate each other so much? How did they end up here? Is Raymond a repressed homosexual himself?- are also present in the movie. A third party is introduced to the mix via a young southern drifter named Tony Newton, occasionally a peace-maker between the two, but also a man with a history of violence and an extended police record, including doing jail time for beating Haskett. Newton, the last surviving roommate, is interviewed in the documentary in a rather uncomfortable scene taking place in Newton’s resident hotel south of Market Street.
So are the tapes, or for that matter, this movie, a work of art or voyeurism? Eddie Lee and Mitch spend much of the movie entertaining that very question, and the invasion of privacy involved, and the subject is discussed and examined throughout the film, with no definitive moral stance reached. As Seymour Glass of the underground magazine Bananafish quips in his early 90s interview with Eddie Lee, “You have to wonder how much right to privacy a person who’s screaming at the top of the lungs expects.” Eddie Lee also refers to art that doesn’t provoke as “boring,” and even in his older-and-wiser persona still seemingly gets a rise out of making folks uncomfortable.
Only Eddie Lee and Mitchell among the principal subjects can be said to have lived happily ever after. While the two are pictured in now adult and somewhat “normal” lives- Mitchell playing catch with his young son, Eddie Lee with his pregnant wife- the few scenes featuring fleeting glimpses of their antagonists- Huffman only via voice and photo, he was never filmed- leave the watcher squeamish and uncomfortable. That said, Peter and Ray, who both died in the 90s, were unhealthy alcoholics living a stressful life in what would likely be considered squalor. Their tapers outgrew it, but the tape-ees sadly never did. Yet it’s tough to think their lives would have been any different, or certainly any better, had their conversations not been taped. There were even several attempts to offer financial renumeration to the three roommates, usually declined.
The fictionalized movie and play- excerpts from both are shown- are in the end not successful, simply because they reflect the vision and taste of outsiders who came to the tapes second-hand. Uncomfortable though it may be, it’s the truth- the hard, weird, occasionally disturbing and always unexplainable truth that brought these two men together- that survives.
In one of the final scenes- one of the few dramatized for the movie- stand-ins for Raymond and Peter alternately sway and stumble together, their hands grasping each other and holding on for dear life, dancing a slow dance to the Magnetic Fields’ “Too Drunk to Dream.” In that final moment, while the full scope of their relationship remains a mystery, they nonetheless expose the heart of it- probably not lovers, not really friends but not quite enemies, instead irrevocably bound together by their, and our, shared history.
Shut Up Little Man! starts Friday at the Sunset 5.