Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure is a great documentary. It succeeds because of its efforts to take two men who most viewed as caricatures, and introduce their human side. Thanks to the film they’re not just drunks with bad tempers, but they’re real people with a real relationship.
Matthew Bate is the man making his feature documentary debut with it, and I recently got the chance to ask him a few questions about the project via email. He had a lot to say about where the project came from, why they made some of the choices they did, and how Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman stand against the world of the internet.
William Bitterman: Where did the idea for this film come from?
Matthew Bate: I read about how artists like Dan Clowes and Devo had used the recordings as inspiration for artwork and music. There was also a back-story about audio-verite (real life recordings made illicitly) and how tape traders all over the world swapped this stuff via postal mail. I loved the idea of this pre-internet viral culture, of reality based entertainment before the onslaught of that kind of television existed and long before Youtube. And of course at the heart of the story are Eddie and Mitch, the two young punks who moved from the mid-west to San Francisco looking for adventure, and ended up living next door to these two older drunken maniacs. The perfect storm scenario of these two guys accidentally creating this pop-culture phenomenon that thrust them into this morally nebulous journey, was a story with the ingredients that I felt would make a great documentary.
WB: Were you a fan of the tapes before making the documentary?
MB: I used to hang around a friend’s record store and someone at the shop told me about this bizarre recording of two old men fighting called SHUT UP LITTLE MAN. I went home and listened to it and it was so shocking and so compelling that I was immediately hooked.
WB: One of the things I really loved about the documentary was the amount of respect Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman were treated with. Was the intention always to look beyond what fans experienced from them, or was this something that evolved over time?
MB: Yes, absolutely. I would like to believe their relationship was deeper than just drunken arguments. They were incredibly hateful towards each other is such a way that they really knew each other. The fact that Pete calls Ray the ‘little man’ every other second is truly demeaning in its repetitiveness. Pete obviously knew how those particular words affected Ray. The whole Pete and Ray dynamic is about finding a chink in each other’s armour and working it into a bloody pulp. If you didn’t care about someone on a deeper level, why would you even bother fighting with them?
WB: I’m 23 years old, so at the height of their popularity I was completely oblivious to the existence of these tapes. Was it ever a consideration that you could potentially be introducing these men to a whole new world of fans? And if so, was that a driving point behind anything within the film?
MB: Yes as the source material is so rich. Upon hearing Peter and Raymond’s vitriolic arguments, their foul- mouthed insults and absolute PURE hatred for one another takes you into a world most of us will never experience. It’s captivating like travelling past a bad road accident and presents a similar moral conundrum. Should I be fascinated? Should I look/listen? Should I be laughing at their banter? Is this even legal? The tapes are hilarious and tragic, they hover on the boundary between art and exploitation.
We had to do research to bring the recordings to life. We talked to all the major players in the SULM phenomenon, primarily Eddie and Mitch. The film is about their lore-making of the story and material, and how they have turned this into a kind of urban legend. But I also wanted to go deeper, to reveal the real men behind the myth. We hired a P.I who helped us uncover some interesting information about Pete and Ray, and of course we tracked down their former roommate Tony Newton, the source of major revelations in the film.I think you need a great story, something that the audience can relate to, be sucked in by and want to know more about at each dramatic turn. I like that the audience be made to work, not be told what to think and to have their sensibilities challenged. In documentary you need to tell this story but also be aware of the wider themes and resonances that your story initiates.
WB: Obviously the world of tape trading must have changed a little bit with the introduction of not only Youtube, but the internet in general. Do you feel like that’s had any sort of positive or negative effects? There’s always a thrill in knowing about something nobody else does, could the internet have cut down on that at all?
MB: I don’t really know. What I can say is that what makes Shut Up Little Man different from most viral memes is the sheer amount of recordings. The things we email around to one another are usually videos lasting 30seconds – 2 minutes long. We open the file. Laugh then never think about it again. There are 14 hours of SULM material, it’s a world unto itself, and its fans study it like a sacred text. So if you want to, you can delve much deeper into this particular viral phenomenon than most others.