Wednesday, September 19, 2012

3 shrt pgrphs: Shut Up, Little Man: An Audio Misadventure

2011, Matthew Bate -- netflix

There were memes before the internet.  They didn't spread nearly as quickly, and as such they had a longevity that memes today don't enjoy (I've almost forgotten Gangnam Style already).  Memes back in the old days were spread physically instead of virtually, largely as a result of tape trading, whether it be VCR or audio mixtapes.  To wit: "Shut Up, Little Man", a subculture phenomenon from the mid-1980's that resulted from two friends moving into a thin-walled, dive apartment in San Francisco that was directly beside two (allegedly platonically) cohabitating men, Pete and Ray, who were like Bert and Ernie, if they were in their 50's, drunk all the time, and arguing incessantly (okay, that last one's exactly like Bert and Ernie).

The two friends, after a frightening encounter in which Ray threatened to kill one of them, decided to start recording their neighbour's arguments.  The recordings were played to the amusement of friends, copies were made, and excerpts wound up on mix tapes.  It started getting around, and eventually became a phenomenon in the underground counter culture of zines, audio verite, way-off-broadway, indie comics and the like.  There was even a record deal.  It was big, but not all pervasive, and this film serves as yet another continuance of a meme that won't die.

This doc finds the original recorders, Mitchell D and Eddie Lee Sausage reuniting to track down Pete and Ray's surviving sometimes-roomate in order to discern the true nature of their relationship.  The film also delves into the fact that D and Sausage have never quite abandoned their involvement with the distribution of the recordings or anything off-shoot related (including a potential Hollywood film), and more seem interested in the commercial side (and protecting thier "creation" from poachers) than any sort of creative expression or sense of Creative Commons/public domain.  The whole scope of the picture is actually quite astute, as it takes this fun, amusing tale of youthful adventure, and then carries it forth through the decades showing how the fun gets sapped out of it when mired in legalities and monetary considerations.  It's especially damning when Pete and Ray become humanized (Pete especially as a video interview made late in his life kind of showed that he didn't really appreciate the joke).  Pete and Ray remain fascinating, through and through, but Mitchell D and Eddie Lee Sausage go from goofy punks in the early telling to douchey guys who want to get rich off of something that they didn't create, so much as facilitate, in all it's legal shades of grey.  That the entire story goes from amusing to pathetic (both for Pete/Ray and for Mitch/Eddie) is at once a satisfying and somewhat sobering arc.