If you don’t think two belligerent, elderly men cursing out each other abrasively is hilarious, then “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure” will leave you bored. Matthew Bate’s movie on the audio-vérité craze that was “Shut Up Lil’ Man” is such a celebratory love-letter that anybody who doesn’t find the audio clips even remotely fascinating will get little out of the documentary’s 90 minute running time. This writer, however, loves the furiously relentless barrage of insults that the pre-YouTube cult-celebrities Raymond Huffman and Peter Haskett would drunkenly hurl at each other daily. While the tapings of the two men fighting alone make an engrossing experience, the filmmaker instead finds the guys responsible for discovering Ray and Peter and delves into the history surrounding the craze, while also dissecting the moral ambiguities associated with these precious tapes.
Back story for the uninitiated is a given, but before heading down that obvious road, the director hits the audience with some of the best Ray and Peter have to offer. After the bait is taken, we’re introduced to college grads Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitch Deprey, a pair of buds that decide to abandon the dairy of Wisconsin for brighter pastures in San Diego. It’s not long after they settle in that they begin to hear the boisterous, heated disputes taking place in the adjacent apartment. Initially they were frightened — these guys were ready to kill each other, and these strapping young lads might be next. But an innocent recording of the squabble (originally intended to be used as evidence in case anything happened — ha!), yielding lines like “You giggle falsely” and “If you want to talk to me then shut your fucking mouth” turned out to feel less threatening and more gut-busting.
Using a boom-box and a microphone taped to Mitch’s skis, the duo recorded the fighting “friends” whenever they could, even making a monthly party centered around their neighbor’s frequent rent check debacle. Mitch and Eddie knew they had gold on their hands, so there was barely a thought about invasion of privacy — especially because they had already been caught, and the only reaction from Ray was to talk louder about how much of “cock sucking thieving piece of shit” Peter was. Well gosh, if that’s not an invitation to keep documenting…
Originally sandwiched in-between mix-tape songs, Mitch and Eddie finally decided they had enough material for their own tape. Throwing together a bunch of different clips and quips, the first release of “Shut Up Lil’ Man” (named after Peter’s go-to-slam/catch phrase) was born and graciously provided to their buddies. Though it took time, this word-of-mouth and passing-along caught on like wildfire, and everybody was smitten by these nasty old men. Comic artists (such as “Ghost World” author Daniel Clowes), filmmakers (Mike Mitchell), musicians (Devo), and others all had an incredible time incorporating Ray and Peter’s routine into their respective arts. At first, the initial purveyors had fun seeing the doodles and puppet-shows that would pop up using their audio-findings as a basis, but when they saw things getting a little out of hand — such as a play being produced using the characters of Ray and Peter with very similar lines to what they actually said — Mitch and Eddie decided to copyright their tapes. But can you copyright material that was recorded without consent? You can’t, really, and after this point three separate parties all sought to exploit the film rights of these audio recordings of two men in the heat of verbal battle.
The story is mostly relayed by the original men with the mic, and in effort to keep things visual, Bate uses the bag of established documentary tricks: sharply used stock footage, pictures of Eddie and Mitch recording, newly-shot reenactments of Ray and Peter, etc. Despite this same-old aesthetic, it never feels mundane. Anecdotes are told by the duo with such fervor that things never let up, there’s a constant flow of personal accounts that propel the film forward.
There’s some similarities to last year’s “Winnebago Man,” another documentary that took a gander at an accidental celebrity. In both instances, each respective party is being taken advantage of for a chuckle, exploited for the pleasure of others. Whereas ‘Winnebago’ successfully examined the situation by having the director in the spotlight as well (and portraying himself negatively and somewhat patheticly), ‘Shut Up’ is more subtle about it. Rather than making his opinion on the matter vocal or explicit, Bate prefers to let things speak for themselves with very particular inclusions in the narrative. For example, in an effort to make their movie first, each group either stalks Peter, gets him drunk, or flirts with him. All offer incredibly low sums of money (the most is by producer Henry S. Rosenthal, whose grand dreams of a “Shut Up Little Man” film involve Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando yet can only muster $100 for Peter’s signature) and neither project gets off the ground. Occasionally Bate presses the questions of morality and whether these tapes are even art, but his inclusion of late video interviews with Peter and occasional third ‘Lil’ Man’ Tony (who gives in to a video interview after being hounded by Mitch) say more than any amount of vocal interference from the director could ever say. The people behind these voices are finally present, in the flesh, and there’s something undeniably perturbing about it. They’re not caricatures, of course, but human — sincere in what they say and do. The interviews are simply shot, mostly focusing on their subjects, but it’s hard not to be pierced by their humanity. You can’t look away.
This changes the way we not only see Ray, Peter, and Tony, but everyone else in the film as well. Bate shows the newer interviews to the fans included in the movie, with most proceeding to give their two-cent psychoanalysis of what the Lil’ Men’s lives were like. Phrases like “he’s a broken man” in reference to Peter sting a little too much, after all, who are we to say who these men are after listening to their arguments for only a year? In the grand scheme of things, a year’s worth of drunken stupor and an interview a decade later don’t exactly paint even ten percent of a person’s actual existence. One of the most shameful excerpts follows an audio-vérité obsessive visiting a friend’s house to watch the interview with Peter, a new unearthing to them. Both in their 40s/50s, the latter takes his pal down into the basement, a cellar so clichely decorated with Star Wars posters and Wrestling action figures that one wonders whether this was part of the reenactments or not. Decked in Hawaiian shirts and throwing back beer, the two proceed to talk about the interview with Pete and how they now pity him, making vague assumptions about his “sad life.” This little tidbit speaks for itself.
Ultimately, though, Bate refuses to be too judgmental with those attempting a scrutiny of men they’ve chortled at for years. After all, how different are we by partaking in the listening and laughing? The filmmaker spends just enough time on these ethical questions and contradictions so that they take hold; he also does them clever enough that they never feel too condescending. For the most part, though, he lets his hair down and reveals a Lil’ Man fanatic, more interested in sharing something entertaining than dissecting the philosophy behind its being. That’s what keeps “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure” from ever being boring: the love is apparent and any sort of mean-spirit is absent. The movie regrettably ends on a puerile, powerless reenactment of Ray and Peter slow dancing; but by then you’re likely googling for more of their ridiculous quarrels. [B+]