March 28, 2012

Convenient Truths -- SHUT UP LITTLE MAN!

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.

Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2011's Shut Up Little Man by Matthew Bate.

Elkin: Shut Up Little Man is a documentary about the underground audio verite phenomenon that occurred when, in 1987, two young men in San Francisco (Eddie and Mitchell) started recording the drunken arguments between their neighbors and started distributing the cassette tapes to all their friends. These friends began sharing the tapes with their friends, who shared them with their friends, until finally, as the film's web site states, it created “a cult following, spawning sell-out CD’s, comic artworks by Dan Clowes (Ghost World), stage-plays, music from the likes of Devo and a Hollywood feeding frenzy. For the newly famous Eddie and Mitchell, this would be a life-changing experience that would see them ingested into the belly and fired out the orifice of the pop culture beast.”

The film does a fine job of explaining how the tapes came to be (including the background of Eddie and Mitchell), as well as how their popularity was fostered. It then starts to examine the implications of the phenomenon – bringing up questions of privacy, exploitation, voyeurism, schadenfreude, intellectual property, and human relationships. It is in its explorations of these ideas that the film really becomes interesting.

Sacks: You're right, Daniel. I actually had to force myself to sit through the first few minutes because I just didn't take a lot of pleasure in watching two old pathetic alcoholics fight, no matter how clever or funny those alcoholics might have been. It might be a bit of my mother's strong bias against alcoholics or something, but I didn't find the neighbors interesting at first – really more sad than anything.

But I did understand why people would find them funny, and as the movie progresses and it became much more about the reaction to the men and the way that Eddie and Mitchell found pseudo-fame that the movie opened up for me. By the end I was fascinated by so many issues in this movie – voyeurism, emotional tourism, the strange way that an underground culture makes its own icons, the amazing way that the Internet brings all our shared experiences both closer and farther from ourselves, and, of course the true nature of art. That's not to mention the complicated issues of what it means to "own" a recording of two drunken men fighting that becomes a phenomenon. Who stands to profit from such a work, and who should profit from such a work? And there's one more subtle topic here, too: the way a casual and random event from one's youth can change a person's entire life in small, subtle ways.

These are troubling and fascinating questions and they totally snuck up on me while I was watching this movie. I feel like we could discuss some of the implications of this movie for hundreds of words and bore our readers, but there are some aspects of this movie that really beg to be discussed, and that are pertinent to a website like ours.

So let's start with the idea of who owns the intellectual property for "found art". There's a crucial moment in the film where Eddie and Mitchell copyright the material that they recorded, but do they really own the material? Yes, they recorded these drunken idiots, but how can they own the material? How is it art if all they have done is edit the material together? Isn't art all about winnowing and shaping, of assembling moments together that are transcendent and challenging and interesting and compelling? How much of that work did the two friends do if they basically just placed a microphone outside a window and recorded people talking? Where is the art in that found art, and why should that material necessarily be their property?

Elkin: Interesting questions, Sacks. Is it the role of the artist to shape the experiences they are conveying in order to promote his or her own particular message? Can an artist just be a conduit from a private moment to a public forum? Is there art in just the process of “being the one who presents”? This is a question I have often thought of when viewing documentaries. When the director of one of these films begins the editing process, removing bits and altering timelines in order to construct a narrative, what is lost? Is it really “documenting the experience”, or is it, through the act of manipulation, limiting the audience's ability to make judgments about the particular moments?

I just recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, Chris Howell, who is a documentary filmmaker (best known for his Cinema Verite' film Sweet Science about a group of young boxers trying to make it onto the US Olympic Boxing Team), about this very question. He recently completed a short film about the protests in Paris, Texas that erupted in response to the excessively harsh judicial ruling in the Shaquanda Cotton case. Unlike Sweet Science, Howell chose to present this documentary in the style of Direct Cinema. When I asked Chris why he chose to present his film in this manner, he replied:

...the entire arc of her story is there, from beginning to end. The responsibility of fleshing out the framework we provide is on the audience. That information is public record and well plowed. I saw no need to repeat those furrows and viewed our opportunity to add to the conversation as unique. The film’s focus is not Ms. Cotton, but the protest that happened on that rainy day in Paris, and the emotional intensity of being physically immersed in dissension. How many people have stood inside of a passionately angry protest with Black Panthers and Black Muslims in a historically and infamous racist town in Texas in the pouring rain? This dissonance was effective on many levels, and a very rare experience. This is what we add to her tale and the civil rights discussion: nine and one half minutes of raw anger and hope and frustration. It is just a small part, but special in its role.

Here Chris is pointing to the effectiveness of just actually “documenting” an experience. The onus of the reaction to the experience is on the viewer, virtually devoid of manipulation by the artist. Does this give the audience a more “pure” aesthetic response and thereby making it a higher level of “art”? Or is there no “art” to it at all, as it is presented without artifice?

But I think this discussion is, perhaps, not really where our focus should be. I think your main question was really one of ownership of intellectual property. Who “owns” ideas, the creators or the distributors, and, especially after our experiences at Image Expo and all the brouhaha that has been going on in the comic book world concerning this, I understand why this question would stand out the most for you when watching this film. Tell me what you are thinking along these lines.

Sacks: Yeah, it's a tough question because it ultimately comes down to the question about who owns art that was "found" but not created by someone. I actually ended up having a long and very interesting conversation about this very topic with a friend tonight who has an equal philosophical bent to mine, and together we came to the conclusion that the art would not exist if not for the people who made the recording. The cassettes that people love so much would not exist if not for the people making the recordings. They are the ones who listened to the men argue, saw value in recording the argument, and chose to put the content down on tape. If not for them, this found art would just be yet another example of two drunken guys having insane arguments with each other, lost forever to the world and utterly forgotten.

It can (and probably should) be argued that the people making the recording added absolutely nothing to the recording aside from slapping it onto tapes, and hitting record and stop every once in awhile. And that's an important and valid point. They perhaps added nothing to the… I'm not sure what to call it, so let's call it a performance. The performances were created entirely by the two drunks, and therefore it's definitely a valid argument that they should not own the intellectual property.

But even that said, they are the ones who saw genius in what other people might feel is a couple of insane neighbors. They're the ones who saw hilarity in what other people perceived as trash. They're the ones who were able to give some kind of glory to these two drunken idiots. The drunks had the argument, but the tapers had the idea of taking the arguments and doing something with them. Like your friend Chris, they took a common moment and created something that's, well- not art but is artful.

I guess I'm answering my own question above by saying that there is art in just the process of “being the one who presents, as you so artfully put it. What do you make of the argument? Do you think that Eddie and Mitchell could, basically, inadvertently create art?

Elkin: Now I think we are venturing into the timeless philosophical question of “what is art” – and I don't think I have the background to really comment on this (“I know what I like and that's good enough for me”). One could posit the assertion, though, that by the act of framing it as … let's call it entertainment... Eddie and Mitchell are the creators. The “art” is in the presentation, the marketing, of what they found. And they certain were successful in this endeavor.

I think it is safe to say that as a film, this documentary succeeds in its purpose by the very fact that it has spurred this sort of dialogue between us. Say what you will about the aesthetic quality of the “Shut Up Little Man” phenomenon, Bate's documentary is certainly fodder for thought.

The other idea presented in this film that I would like to touch on briefly with you is the idea of how the growth of technology has accelerated the creation of these sorts of “memes” and “viral” products. These tapes were an early form of a viral sensation – a hard core group of Audio Verite' fans started distributing these tapes through their network until eventually it became part of popular culture. But this took time, and this took work, and this took passion and commitment. Nowadays, thanks to the ubiquitous nature of the internet, all someone has to do is post something to social media and, if it catches people's fancy, it spreads like wildfire (like the Koney video reaching over 100 million hits). But because it is so easy, because it is presented among a thousand other things vying for attention, will it last? How many people who have laughed at Long Cat will, in ten years time, go back to the content and see it as having any real meaning in their life?

It's almost like the difference between reading literature and popular fiction. Popular fiction is great. It is easily digested and leaves you feeling satiated, like you just had a McRib. Literature, on the other hand, requires a certain degree of work on the part of the reader in order for him or her to internalize the themes of the writing and its relationship to the human condition. Popular fiction, as it is so easily digested, tends to leave the “body” relatively quickly, whereas the personal involvement that reading literature requires makes it last and gives it depth. That's why we still read Shakespeare and Milton and Li-Po.

Does the fact that fans of the Shut Up Little Man tapes had to exert effort to seek them out give the tapes much more gravitas? Has the proliferation of internet culture reduced our emotional attachment to that which entertains us? Is everything becoming increasingly disposable to the detriment of culture?

Sacks: First of all, I wanna say: wow, could you have imagined that we'd end up having such a complex philosophical conversation over a movie that's all about recordings of two drunk guys arguing? As you said, the documentary definitely succeeds in its purpose by spurring a real dialog between us. Shut Up Little Man is really effective at bringing up some interesting issues that really go to the heart of the kind of material that we present here on Comics Bulletin. What is art? How do we consume art and is there a distinction between high art and the kind of low art that's celebrated in this movie? Does universal love and acclaim for a work help to elevate it in terms of perception of quality? Does something become somehow transcendent and powerful because it's so well loved?

We don't want this conversation to go on forever, and I think as critics who love both "high culture" and "low culture", we will be discussing these issues either directly or indirectly in every review and analysis we write – and this topic will be what I write about in this week's "Manifesto" column for CB. So I'll set those aside and get back to the questions you ask.

I don't think our internet, 24/7, Netflix/Hulu/YouTube/Twitter/Facebook culture has reduced our emotional attachment to that which entertains us. If anything, the ever increasing tribalism of the Internet has made the celebration of certain pieces of entertainment even easier than ever before, and oddly enough has built a kind of consensus around what is great. For example, TV fans are pretty much united in their love for Parks and Rec and Community, and you can argue that it's precisely that kind of rabid, only-in-the-internet-era fandom that has helped those shows to succeed – albeit to smaller audiences than ever before. Oddly enough, things are both more disposable and less disposable than ever before when the vast majority of entertainment of the last 20 years is available somewhere.

I love your analysis about the McRib representing low culture that's easily digestible versus something more ambitious that pushes consumers to internalize the media they consume, allow it to stick to their bones and meditate on it and allow them to come to a deeper, more thoughtful perception of the world. As a high school literature teacher, I'm sure you like to think a great work of art can change a person's life, and I know as a critic of comics literature that there is a distinction between ambitious, complex, powerful work like Habibi, Footnotes in Gaza, Paying for It and My Friend Dahmer, Stagger Lee and more commercial, easily digestible work. And part of the job of a critic is to analyze a work that strives to succeed on that level and assess whether it actually achieves what the author intends. Does Gone to Amerikay stick to the bones? Does The Lovely Horrible Stuff change your perceptions in certain powerful ways? Do the new McCulloch/Doran and Campbell works become true art, or do they fall short of their lofty goals?

The real thrill comes from finding something that seems to be easily digestible but which actually is great and powerful and transcends that level. Watchmen is the easy choice for comics fans, or All-Star Superman, or my beloved Steve Gerber, or another favorite, Brother Power the Geek which is the secret autobiography of a man who has no idea what to make of the world around him. The McRib somehow, magically, becomes a perfect New York steak.

I've kind of gone off on a tangent away from your questions directly above; how would you answer your own questions, Daniel?

Elkin: Pretty sneaky, Sacks, making me answer my own questions. You assume that I have answers. I don't really, all I have are assumptions based on limited anecdotal evidence. For me, it seems that the cliché about something easily won being less valued holds true, and as things get more and more easily won, we tend not to want to put in the work required to uncover things of value. We want our McRib now, at the expense of the Filet Mignon later (I'm choking on this metaphor).

And then there is the role of the critic.....

Layers and layers. We're at almost 3,000 words on this film and we haven't even begun to talk about some of the other themes this documentary explores, like questions about privacy, voyeurism, schadenfreude, and the corrupting power of success. This is what makes Shut Up Little Man such a successful documentary. It brings up so many of these issues and does not really force an agenda or propose to answer any of them. It lets the participants do the talking. Director Matthew Bate pretty much turns the camera on Eddie and Mitchell and lets them tell the story of what happened. He lets interpreters of the phenomenon, like Daniel Clowes and Mark Mothersbaugh, explain why they were drawn in. Each interaction and interview adds new depth to the original ideas and raises new questions with each thought. Bate then leaves it up to the audience of the film to draw their own conclusions or, like we have done here, engage in dialogue.

I am no fan of the Shut Up Little Man tapes. Living in a small town in an apartment with paper thin walls, I get to hear all kinds of abuse and degradation on a seemingly daily basis – I find no entertainment in this, no matter how I try to frame it in my head, or how somebody might think to package this for me. I am also kind of uncomfortable with the ramifications of the creation of these tapes, especially in terms of privacy issues. Plus, although as an American it is my patriotic duty to revel in schadenfreude, I guess I am too empathetic to go full hog. In spite of all this, though, I really enjoyed Shut Up Little Man. It hit everything I want in my documentaries, especially by getting out of the way and letting the issues raise themselves.

Sacks: I was hoping you had the answers, Elkin, because I sure didn't. And I could talk for a long time more about all the issues implied by this movie, but I think you really summed it up well above. Well said, my friend. I'm really glad you recommended this documentary to me. It really snuck up on me and left behind a whole lot of complex thoughts. I guess on some level that makes this documentary stray over the line to become art itself.

Elkin: Yea, whodda thunk it? I think we can both agree that Shut Up Little Man is a film more people should see. And remember, “If you want to talk to me, then shut your f**cking mouth.”

Trailer for the film:

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