In 1987, two aspiring Bohemians who met at the University of Wisconsin, Mitch Deprey and Eddie Guerriero — soon to be immortalized as “Mitchell D and Eddie Lee Sausage” — left the Midwest for San Francisco, where they moved into a funky apartment on Steiner and Waller in the Lower Haight. Thanks to thin walls and alcohol, they discovered that their new next-door neighbors were Raymond, a virulent homophobe in love with the word “cocksucker,” and Peter, a bitchy queen prone to rejoinders of “SHUT UP, LITTLE MAN!”, both of them sad alcoholics inexplicably sharing a one-room apartment. Their vulgar, late-night scream fights (and occasionally, fistfights) were so entertaining that Mitch and Eddie started recording them, sharing the tapes with friends (who in turn — and unbeknownst to Mitch and Eddie for quite some time — shared them with their friends), and all who heard them quickly became fascinated with Raymond and Peter’s bizarre, hilarious relationship. It was an inside joke that spread, and soon, being able to rattle off the quotable Raymond and Peter (“I’m not dead! I will tell you if I’m dead.”) became as initiatory in some circles as choice Lebowski-isms are today. By the mid 90s, the tapes had spawned comics, a stage play, a commercial CD release, and three competing film projects — a viral, found-comedy sensation in the days before the internet.
Phew, that was expository, wasn’t it. Much like my first paragraph, at times, Matthew Bate’s documentary creaks under the weight of the backstory. He attempts to introduce us to the tapes, get us as excited about them as all these other people seem to be, and untangle the confusing knot of acquaintances and adaptations that eventually led to the three competing Shut Up Little Man film projects — not to mention parse the grievances and complex rights issues that eventually caused those projects to collapse. Film rights issues are a byzantine nightmare under normal circumstances, you can imagine how exhausting it gets when two guys record two other guys without their permission, and then another set of guys write a film based on that. Who owns the copyright? More importantly, do you care?
Shut Up Little Man finally hits its stride in the home stretch, when it narrows its focus to the subjects of the original recordings — where are they now? What did they think about the tapes? What else can they tell us about how it happened? Were Pete and Raymond having sex? It takes the form of an in-search-of doc or a mystery, such that when they finally catch up to Pete/Raymond’s lone surviving roommate, actually seeing him describe Peter as “fruitier than a goddamn pineapple,” is strangely cathartic.
Here’s Bate discovering what Mitch and Eddie knew intuitively all along — that these guys are a priceless resource of quaint threats and homespun vulgarisms. So it’s nice when Bate’s focused on that, less nice when he’s asking Mitch and Eddie whether they think their recordings are “art.” There’s an obvious answer to this question, and it’s “WHO F*CKING CARES?” Art schmart, the recordings are a strange little slice of HISTORY. Asking whether two shouty old drunks trying to booze themselves to death were being exploited just seems a tad precious for my jaded, internet-deadened ass. Besides, so much of what we know about past generations comes from interpreting the carefully-crafted public personas of artists and political figures. Even now, it’s rare to get such an unfiltered glimpse into the private lives of two guys who hadn’t distinguished themselves much in any other way, who had no ambitions or agenda. Aside from being funny, the tapes are a valuable historical document. So it feels a bit like a digression, a frustrating response to an unasked question, when Bate explores whether Peter and Raymond “have been exploited.” These were two sad drunks who would’ve died forgotten in one-room residency hotels. Instead their humanity has been preserved for and celebrated by future generations. In a similar way to Winnebago Man, it’s obnoxious to hear people assume that just because these people may not have been aware of how funny they were, that that means they’re nothing but pitiable victims of ridicule. I think the internet generation inherently “gets” the blurry line between celebration and ridicule, so hearing a filmmaker wrestle with it this much is a little like hearing your grandpa explain Photoshop. You can just skip to layer masks, old man, we don’t need to hear about how to drag and click the mouse.
Luckily, documentaries can succeed on the strength of subject matter in a way that narrative films can’t. It’s a great story, even if Bate doesn’t tell it perfectly.
(You can hear my interview with Eddie on this week’s Frotcast)