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 relive those agonies. If that's the case, than maybe it's not shitty to enjoy the secretly recorded shouting matches of Raymond and Peter, the semilegendary San Francisco roommates whose hollering spawned a protoviral cassette-swap phenomenon in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Raymond and Peter, both now dead, 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!"
On the tapes that made them unwitting (and unknowing) celebrities, the cocksuckers played as the bleakest of comedies. But perhaps the thousands who have laughed at the hours of available Raymond v. Peter dustups have enjoyed something more than a flophouse Punch and Judy show. Perhaps cruel bickering is a ritual through which we relieve life's pain.
The tapes themselves 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. Bate's film, while problematic, offers an arresting summation of the state of Raymond and Peter studies — although the Raymond and Peter it depicts might not be as fascinating as the ones listeners have long imagined.
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 like Bananafish. Comics greats Daniel Clowes and Ivan Brunetti turn up to speak persuasively of how the tapes reveal dark truths of the human condition.
Fascinating stuff, but audio vérité presents problems the filmmakers don't solve. Director Bate resorts to dramatizing the tapes with actors playing Raymond and Peter, which robs viewers of the chance to dream up these guys ourselves. Bate has today's Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D playact tapemaking in a mockup 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. Even when he scares up compelling footage, Bate cuts away. He films Brunetti dashing off the first lines of a sketch of Raymond, based on the hectoring voice, but instead of allowing us the pleasure of an artist at work, Bate jumps ahead to the finishing touches.
Shut Up Little Man! sags when Bate's attention turns to the quest of the recorders (and other interested parties) to land a movie deal. Some years-later back-and-forth from interviewees is duly cut with images of actors dressed as Raymond and Peter beating the hell out of each other. Eventually, after Raymond died, lawyers and producers tracked down Peter in a Tenderloin flophouse, where they tried to get him to sign away the rights to his story. In remarkable footage from 1995, 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 toy with serious concerns about privacy in a media age. The recorders insist that the men's disputes were sufficiently loud 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 handwringing about phone and flip videos making regular people look crazy on YouTube, and press Eddie Lee Sausage 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 into another flophouse, where he knocks on the door of an octogenarian friend of Raymond and Peter's. Mitchell D offers a six-pack for an interview. The film implicates itself. Since we're also eager for the door to open , it damns us, too.