Recent research suggests that swearing — as in cursing, cussing, or unleashing any stream of invective that newspaper comics would render as furious punctuation — is something more than a reflex response to life's agonies. It might actively help to relieve those agonies. If that's the case, then maybe it's not shitty to enjoy the secretly recorded shouting matches of Raymond and Peter, the semi-legendary San Francisco roommates whose hollering spawned a proto-viral cassette-swap phenomenon in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Raymond and Peter, both now dead and in their 60s at the time of the recordings, lived lives of noisy desperation. Raymond, drunk, would call Peter a "filthy cocksucker" or declare: "You ain't a human being. You're a fucking queer." Peter, also drunk and openly gay, would rejoin, "Shut up, little man!" or "You're a rotten little liar man-lady," or, on one occasion, "You try to give me pants of yours? Nobody'd wear your shit!"
The tapes that made the cocksuckers unwitting (and unknowing) celebrities played as the bleakest of comedies and provide the most compelling material in Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, Matthew Bate's new documentary on Raymond, Peter, and the neighbors who made the recordings, unleashed them into the world as a public domain audio vérité art project, and then claimed copyright as soon as Hollywood looked interested.
The recorders were Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. In 1987, these clever fellows moved into a Lower Haight dive they called the Pepto Bismol Palace. There, they were at first annoyed by Ray and Peter's shouting but soon became fascinated. They shared the initial tapes with friends, who shared with friends, and so forth. Soon, tales and transcripts of Raymond and Peter's fights turned up in 'zines such as Bananafish. Comic-book greats Daniel Clowes and Ivan Brunetti appear in Bate's film to speak persuasively of how the tapes reveal dark truths of the human condition.
Fascinating stuff, but audio vérité presents problems that Bate doesn't solve. To visualize the drama, Bate resorts to reenactments, with actors playing Raymond and Peter, robbing viewers of the chance to dream up these guys ourselves. Bate has today's Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. play-act tape-making in a mock-up of their old apartment; worse, as counterpoint to Raymond and Peter's spirited harangues, he often cuts to familiar stock footage of wholesome '50s Americans beaming at their TVs and radios, injecting his own forced context on the material. Even when he scares up compelling footage, Bate cuts away. He films Brunetti dashing off the first lines of a sketch of Raymond based solely on the hectoring voice, but instead of allowing us the pleasure of an artist at work, Bate jumps ahead to the finishing touches.
Still, the tapes are great. More than just a flophouse Punch and Judy show, the Raymond vs. Peter dust-ups elevate cruel bickering to a ritual through which we live life's pain. Where Shut Up Little Man! sags is when Bate's attention turns to the quest of the recorders (and other interested parties) to land a movie deal. Much bitter back-and-forth from Bate's talking heads ensues, a slog only relieved by some remarkable footage filmed in 1995, when lawyers and producers tracked down Peter and tried to get him to sign away the rights to his story. George Cothran, then an SF Weekly reporter who turned up on the same day, explains to Peter what nobody else had ever bothered to: that tapes of him shouting had made him something of a star. At moments like this, Shut Up Little Man! achieves the weight and power of the original recordings.
Bate and his talking heads also toy with serious concerns about privacy and exploitation. The recorders insist that the disputes were sufficiently loud enough to be a public event, even though many of the tapes were made with a microphone held outside Raymond and Peter's window. The filmmakers indulge in some hand-wringing about phone and flip videos making regular people look crazy on YouTube today and press Eddie Lee Sausage — a mostly regular guy who has long maintained a sideline in Shut Up! swag — on why he sells copies of Raymond and Peter's death certificates at three bucks a pop.
Moments later, as if none of that mattered, a cameraman trails Mitchell D. as he knocks on the door of an octogenarian friend of Raymond and Peter's. Mitchell D. offers a six-pack for an interview, and the film implicates itself. Because we're also eager for the door to open, it damns us, too.