Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman were two violent, alcoholic roommates living in a run-down apartment complex in San Francisco in the late '80s. Their near-constant drunken arguments kept two recent college graduates next door from getting any sleep. So the two friends, "Eddie Lee Sausage" and "Mitchell D.," began recording what would later be referred to as the "Shut Up, Little Man" recordings, named after Haskett's constant, boozy retort to his roommate's profane protestations.
But there were deeper subtexts to the audio: did Huffman, a virulent homophobe, know that his roommate Haskett was gay? And what exactly was the nature of their relationship? What began as hilarious tapes shared amongst friends became a full-blown (and profitable) indie phenomenon, with a CD release on Matador records, a play, songs by Devo and Nirvana, and countless other artistic interpretations of Peter and Raymond, none of which they were aware of. In his documentary Shut Up, Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, (which opens tomorrow at IFC) Australian director Matthew Bate explores the phenomenon from its inception, and delves into the thornier questions of art, ownership, and making money off snooping on your crappy neighbors.
So how did you happen upon these recordings of Peter and Raymond? I used to hang around this record store collecting vinyl records and I met this guy there—one of those guys that kind of turns you on to bands you've never heard of. He said, “You gotta hear this thing called "Shut Up, Little Man!" I went home and Googled it and I think I illegally downloaded some of the recordings and listened to them and it just blew my socks off. Listening to this stuff, it just conjures up all these incredible questions about who these guys were and why are a gay man and straight man living together and why they hate each other so much. You know, who recorded this stuff?
So I did more research and I came across Eddie's website, who was the original recorder and who had his sort of partial history of Shut Up, Little Man! Devo were involved and Nirvana and Dan Clowes and it all piqued my interest. A lot of these bands that I loved and people like Dan that I loved, loved these recording. I was immediately sort of hooked and then you have to start thinking about things like art and exploitation and all of those things we delve into in the film. It was all very juicy material.
The movie does a good job of contrasting the excitement of Eddie and Mitch's plight to disseminate the material and reflecting on how they directly benefit from how terrible Peter and Raymond's lives really were. Absolutely. I think it has to. In a way, we've become another spoke in this wheel of exploitation but I think I said it in the New York Times on the weekend: we may have unleashed the Shut Up, Little Man! bug on thousands of other people. I think what we've done is opened up the discussion and that's why I wanted to do a film about the nature of popular culture and the nature of how we ingest popular culture and this sort of voracious appetite we have for voyeurism. So I think that yes, on the one hand it is another part of this exploitation of Peter and Raymond but also I think it opens up this discussion about the nature of these things.
Has YouTube's platform of instant visual gratification sort of killed the art of audio vérté? Well, I'm not sure it has.
For instance, our website features plenty of video that people capture at random in their everyday lives. It could be as simple as something odd happening on the subway— it's just a raw document of their life at that moment. Walking to a record store to buy a CD of these recordings that people had to go out of their way to purposefully document with a makeshift boom mike, as Mitch and Eddie do, seems crazy. The smartphone has killed those barriers. So is it art anymore or is it just sort of public record? It's good question. I mean, look at the Christian Bale thing for example. [Ed.: Or our personal favorite, Mel Gibson] That's audio which is unique in a way because normally these things, as you said, appear on tape. Like a celebrity freak-out is usually a video or it's a celebrity sex tape. It's something we can watch. Back in the day when people weren't carrying cell phones with cameras on them, people didn't have access to this sort of material.
We were perhaps more game to take chances with audio. It was a very different, maybe more innocent thing in a way. People are more insidious with video. I think that was one of the things I wanted to explore in this film was this almost cannibalistic nature, in a way, that we have, when it comes to getting so much pleasure from the dirtier aspects of people's lives. In a way it comes from a sense of guilt.
I'm not saying I'm not part of this. The film comes from me wanting to expose issues because that's how I ingested “Shut Up, Little Man! I listened to the recordings and I thought they were hilarious. I still laugh at them. But also it makes people question my own morality listening to this stuff, makes me question the people that made the recordings.
Were you aware of the movie Winnebago Man when you were making this film? Yeah, I've definitely seen it. In fact I saw it when I was, not making the film, but through the development process. I saw it in Sheffield and we met the director and I saw it, and thought oh God, it's similar to Shut Up, Little Man! But I think it's a very different film. We're very different filmmakers, for starters, and took a very different approach. In fact there are a number of films, Catfish, for instance was sort of similar, about the way that we use the internet and the way that we ingest popular culture and social networking.
You had a little more time as well. The Shut Up, Little Man! phenomenon was around the early '90s whereas Winnebago Man is more contemporaneous. It's on YouTube. It's part of the instant and somewhat fleeting gratification of an internet meme, whereas your subject had plenty of time to seep into the cultural bedrock. Yeah, definitely. It always fascinates me how Shut Up, Little Man! is still going, it still has an audience all these years later. And I think it's got something to do with the sheer amount of recordings that were made.
I mean it's 14 hours of material. And if you want to become immersed in it, if you do become a fan, there's a lot of stuff. That's a lot of audiotape. And these people do have these Facebook sites they have these obsessive fans who quote the stuff to each other relentlessly and seem to study all 14 hours and are able to quote it back to one another. Maybe there's something in that, maybe there's more to kind of immerse yourself into this weird universe that you can kind of get lost in.
The movie touches on the acrimony between Eddie and Mitch and the subsequent artists who come in and try and use the material based on their first designation that it should be free for use or manipulation. But then they go back on their initial impulse and create a really messy legal situation. You kind of get into that but at the same time I thought it was a little understated. There's no real talk of litigation. Were there lawsuits? There were threats of lawsuits and legal documents sent around and threats made and so on. There were definitely, yeah. And I don't know, I could've gotten into it, I just though there was more interesting stuff to be had than the moral issues and the parallel with sort of contemporary issues that we have. It was more of an interesting way to spend time in the film than get into the nitty gritty of lawsuits and that sort of thing. I don't think they ever got to court, they were more threatening letters from lawyers.
Another thing that sort of makes Eddie and Mitch that much more insidious with regard to their vigorous defense of their "art" is that they come across as such nice guys. They are.
To me, these guys seem nice but they're fighting for something they don't own. And the fact that they sell the Peter and Raymond's death certificates and have basically made it a huge portion of their work to capitalize on it, it's all kind of depressing. I was surprised that you didn't touch on that more. Well I did touch on that in the movie, there are a couple of scenes where, when we're seeing Peter for the first time for instance. We're seeing a collage or montage of clips of the death certificates and the merchandising of this guy.
Yeah, that's true. And at the end I put myself in the film. My intention was not to be in the film, but I felt like I needed to be. Towards the end when I'm talking to Eddie on the bed and he's saying that, his argument is Shut Up Man is art and I say, “Well, is art selling death certificates? Is that part of the art?” So I definitely wanted to probe him about that.
To me, morally, the death certificates are the kind of thing that tips the balance. And everyone is different; my producer doesn't think there's anything wrong with that. But to me, there is something wrong with that. I think it kind of gets into that whole Charles Manson type tee shirt thing, if you know what I mean. So I definitely wanted to go there with him and I thought. It's interesting that you didn't pick that up.
Because they were a crucial part of the genesis of your subject, and therefore the most heavily interviewed, I kind of got the sense that you had to treat them gently in order to get their cooperation. There's one artist that you interview, who began working on the Shut Up, Little Man! play, who essentially said, “Well they were nice guys but they went back on their word and they completely changed after the popularity starting soaring." Of course Mitch & Eddie deny it in the film. Did you get a sense that these guys had profoundly changed as people after this thing took off? I did, yeah. You know, for Eddie it's been his great work I guess and for someone that wants to be an artist, he's an artist, declares himself an artist. Yes. This has been his great contribution to culture, I guess, in his eyes. In the film he talks about being a folklorist, that his art is putting a frame around Shut Up Little Man, coming up with a website, and creating the lore of Shut Up Little Man, witnessing the giant rabbit that Ray used to sit with and naming it "The Girl."
All that stuff, into the mythology that he created, he considers it art. I'm not gonna say that that's not art because I think since Marcel Duchamp put a toilet seat on a wall and called it art, then anything could be art. I think you put a frame around it and call it art.
But, you know, how great that art is, I don't know. It's an interesting question. I didn't want to see a point in the film; maybe that's the other thing. When you say some of this was subtle, I agree and I want it to be because I think, I wanted to start a discussion, this was my hope. To have seen it and to just ask you where it lands rather than telling you where it lands and point you in the right direction.It's funny that certain people love Eddie and Mitch by the end of the film and others think they're complete slime.
Yeah, I started out really liking them but by the end of the movie, I'm like “Hey guys, you're doing essentially what a 13 year old with a flip phone does on the subway everyday." But then again, I essentially grew up with YouTube. Right.
What are you working on next? It's a similar project in a way. I'm involved with someone I found on the Internet who's been filming himself all day live for over 40 years. And I'm very interested in this subject about how someone grows up on film. From Super 8 era to YouTube era. Maybe he could be seen as the original blogger or Tweeter.
Like a sort of "Internet Test Tube Baby?" Yeah, I might steal that from you.
Well, its on tape so, you know, I'll need a cut. [Laughs] I'll have to contact your lawyer.