Buck at home with his picture of Mom.
Buck’s Mom dies.
As a voyeuristic queer man-boy with a domineering mother, Buck O’Brien has much in common with Psycho's Norman Bates...
...except that unlike Norman, Buck’s stalking is portrayed humorously rather than horrifically.
Buck’s childhood best friend and lover Chuck comes to Buck’s mom’s funeral...
...much to Buck’s delight. Buck’s obsession with Chuck begins immediately.
After the funeral, Buck corners Chuck in the bathroom...
...and in a vulnerable moment...
...inappropriately gropes Chuck.
Buck packs up his toys and other possessions...
...and moves away to a hotel room in L.A. to be near Chuck.
Buck finds Chuck’s workplace.
Buck follows Chuck home.
During a jog...
...Chuck remembers his childhood with Buck.
The first of Buck’s crying fits.
Buck’s crying, starkly rendered with handheld camera, evokes viewer pathos.
A montage of Buck writing his play, Hank and Frank...
...is intercut with darkly comic shots of Buck spying on Chuck and Carlyn in their home.
by Carter Soles
In 1992, B. Ruby Rich wrote “New Queer Cinema,” an essay that delineates a group of independent films released in 1991-92 notable for its oppositional attitude toward mainstream aesthetic conventions and frank engagement with queer characters and themes. Eight years later, Rich wrote a follow-up piece, “Queer and Present Danger,” arguing that in the wake of the New Queer Cinema (NQC) “moment” of 1991-92, queer images and subject matter had been appropriated and commodified by the wider (that is, non-queer) independent film industry in the mid- to late 1990s:
“Queer and Present Danger” declared that the release and critical success of such post-NQC films as Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Chasing Amy (1997) proved that the production of cinematic queerness for mainstream consumption was well underway.
This essay investigates one such post-NQC independent film, Miguel Arteta’s Chuck&Buck (2000), examining in detail how it engages with male homosexual desire in a way that renders its queer male characters and thematics at least potentially palatable to non-queer-identifying audiences while taking its viewers on a “stalker’s odyssey” that marks the film as pervasively queer. For while the film does not necessarily possess the broad appeal or critical status of the other films Rich mentions, it stands as a provocative example of recent independent cinema’s increasing willingness to address LGBTQ issues, and as we shall see, Chuck&Buck does this in a particularly radical way. However, Chuck&Buck’s willingness to queerly depict gay encounters, themes, and characters is at the same time mitigated by its formal and structural disavowals of its gay/queer content.
The way the film negotiates its own queerness via this oscillation between queer denotation and disavowal is not only germane to Chuck&Buck but is endemic to the discursive politics of many post-NQC independent films, from 1994’s Clerks to the recent Garden State (2004).[open notes in new window] The ambiguous and contradictory character of this negotiation can be initially grasped through a cursory look at Chuck&Buck’s reviews.
Reviewing Chuck&Buck’s reviews
I first saw Chuck&Buck in 2002 and my research for this project began when I started reading popular reviews of the film at that time. Reading such reviews, I was disheartened though not completely surprised to discover how few of them, especially those written for mainstream U.S. publications, were willing to address the male homosexual desire that pervades the film and impels its narrative. As a low-budget independent film that, despite its sporadic critical acclaim has failed to gain a widespread cult (let alone queer) following, I expected to find mainstream publications panning it and wasn’t surprised by the negative reviews. But I was surprised to discover how many of the reviews elided the sexual content of the film altogether. Of nine such popular reviews I read, only three specifically mention the sexual component of Chuck and Buck’s relationship and most of these do so in vague or pejorative terms. Doubtless, this is in part due to the (regrettably typical) homophobic bent of these publications and their presumed readership.
In contrast, while it was difficult to locate very many reviews of Chuck&Buck in the queer press, the reviews I did find there had a very different reaction to the film. To cite one example, from the popular queer film website PopcornQ, the review claims that “[b]ecause Buck is portrayed as emotionally stunted rather than deranged, the audience is not put off by behavior that amounts to stalking” and concludes that Chuck&Buck “is less about Buck's gayness than it is about forgiveness and coming to terms with one's past.” Reading the film as being about forgiveness rather than gayness, this review suggests that what may be disturbing to mainstream audiences is not so much Chuck&Buck’s focus on gay or potentially gay characters, but more so the behavior that leads Buck to ultimately need Chuck’s (and the audience’s) forgiveness and sympathy: his socially inappropriate stalking of Chuck and Carlyn.
As the PopcornQ review points out, what is most interesting about Buck’s stalking is that it is linked to emotional stunting rather than derangement. Hence, despite the discomfort Buck’s voyeurism may produce in many if not most audience members, it is ultimately presented as forgivable and even darkly humorous. Further, Buck’s stalkerism is perpetrated against two characters, Chuck and Carlyn, who are somewhat two-dimensionally depicted as unremarkable members of the upper-middle class. For example, we mostly know Chuck by his high-powered job at a record label, his expensive car (a BMW), and his repulsion toward Buck’s creepy yet innocently motivated advances. And we barely get to know Carlyn, Chuck’s fiancée, at all. Hence, the film establishes an opposition between Chuck and Carlyn’s middle-class pretensions and Buck’s persistent ignorance of them, tending to privilege Buck’s point of view through many strategies that I will outline in this article. I thus argue that, read as a form of queer expression, Buck’s apparent state of arrested development in Chuck&Buck can be understood as a form of opposition to heteronormativity as represented by Chuck and Carlyn, a clearing of space that, while linked to Buck’s nostalgia over his own childhood, allows him to express his homosexual erotic desire for Chuck in the present.
Chuck&Buck challenges heteronormativity by sympathetically portraying stalking as a means of puncturing the middle-class, heteronormative presumptions of many of its straight-identifying male characters, particularly Chuck. However, like many other independent films of its period, Chuck&Buck simultaneously acts to contain and marginalize this queerness through, first, its stereotypical treatment of Buck’s homosexuality, connecting it to arrested development, and second, as I will outline in detail, the repressive politics of its denouement.
As an independently produced low-budget film with explicitly queer components, Chuck&Buck is not as reluctant to open itself to queer interpretation as are many Hollywood films, and therefore my analysis will not depend upon seeking out what Alexander Doty calls the “silences and gaps” that open space for queerness in more mainstream texts (Flaming Classics 3). In fact, I will frequently be doing the opposite: looking for the places where the film’s openly queer characters and narrative are complicated by potentially heterocentric or “normalizing” influences, both diegetic and structural. Interestingly, while it is my ostensible aim to explore how the progressive aspects of Chuck&Buck’s queer politics, particularly its acceptance of stalkerism, are mitigated by its heterocentric elements and ellipses, it is these very heterosexual/heterocentrist elements that open the way to a reading of the film that includes the greatest possible range of queer positionings: the acknowledgement of sexual identities and cultural positions that refuse to be delimited by the usual categories of (strictly) gay, lesbian, straight, and so forth. I will support my argument with queer readings of the principle male characters and a shot-by-shot analysis of the film’s last three minutes, concluding with remarks about Chuck&Buck’s queer politics and their place in the independent film movement of the 1990s.
Defining “queerness” and locating genre
Before proceeding with my analysis of specific characters and sequences from the film, a word needs to be said about my use of the terms “queer” and “queerness.” Following Doty, I see queerness as an inclusive term having a multivalence of possible meanings depending upon its specific context. In its broadest sense, it denotes “a wide range of positions within culture that are ‘queer’ or non-, anti-, or contra-straight” which, in addition to encompassing the positions of explicitly gay, lesbian, and other non-straight persons, “can be and [are] occupied in various ways by otherwise heterosexual and straight-identifying people” (Making Things 3, 4). In other words, as Doty constructs queerness and as I think the film Chuck&Buck exemplifies, everyone is potentially capable of inhabiting queer space or responding queerly to cultural texts. And since “queer erotics are already part of culture’s erotic center … as a necessary construct by which to define the heterosexual and the straight” (3), cultural products such as films cannot help but have queer erotics and thematics already embedded within them, no matter how explicitly or vehemently they might disavow this possibility. What interests me about Chuck&Buck is the way it negotiates this slippery slope. It is a film about non-hetero characters doing explicitly non-hetero things, and yet certain moments in the film, and especially its ending, feel like attempts to disavow or distort its homosexual content in some way.
In the context of this essay, I will be using queerness primarily to describe not-exclusively-straight males, especially the ambiguous Buck. As such my use of “queer” will align itself with Doty’s description of Psycho’s Norman Bates from Flaming Classics:
As we shall see, this kind of ambiguous description suits Buck — and arguably, other male characters throughout the film — quite accurately.
Chuck&Buck depicts the coming-of-age of Buck O’Brien (Mike White), an innocent man-boy who is obsessed with his childhood friend and former homosexual lover, Chuck Sitter (Chris Weitz). Following the death of his sick mother, Buck invites Chuck to the funeral and then comes on to him at the reception. Chuck rejects him, but this does not deter Buck. Buck moves to Los Angeles (with his childhood toys and record player in tow) to be closer to Chuck, who now goes by “Charlie” and is engaged to a woman named Carlyn Carlson (Beth Colt). Buck stalks Chuck, appearing at his home and office unannounced and spying on Chuck and Carlyn through their windows. When these efforts prove insufficient to bring Buck closer to Chuck, Buck writes and stages Hank and Frank, a play starring inept actor and Chuck look-alike Sam (Chris Weitz’s real-life brother, Paul). Buck’s play dramatizes his version of the idyllic heyday and subsequent estrangement, via an interfering witch, of his relationship with Chuck. However, watching Hank and Frank only further alienates Chuck. Buck finally resorts to offering to stay out of Chuck’s life permanently in exchange for one last night spent together, a deal Chuck accepts. The film ends with Buck honoring his part of the bargain, at least nominally moving on with his life, and ultimately attending Chuck and Carlyn’s wedding in the film’s final sequence.
Structurally, Chuck&Buck is a comedy. It nonjudgmentally depicts the efforts of a social transgressor to “outwit an opponent and possess the [love object] of his choice” and ends with a "the birth of a renewed sense of social integration,” usually expressed through a “marriage, a dance, or a feast” (Frye 450, 452).
Buck’s presumed opponent in his struggle to possess Chuck is Carlyn, and though she is a sympathetic character who does little to thwart Buck’s plans actively, in terms of the comedic structure, she poses a threat as an agent or representative of the middle-class, heterocentric social order that refuses to acknowledge Buck’s sexual claim on Chuck. In fact, Chuck has himself at least superficially adopted these heteronormative values in his adult life and thus to some extent embodies both the object of Buck’s desire and his opponent, though Buck refuses to see him as anything but the former throughout most of the film. Further adhering to the generic structure of the comedy, Chuck&Buck ends with a wedding, though the renewed social order it celebrates may or may not include Buck.
Despite its superficial adherence to the generic codes of comedy, Chuck&Buck really belongs to the subgenre of "dark" comedy, which indicates that it will likely disrupt or modify mainstream genre conventions to achieve its effects. The film does this in some particularly strange ways. Rather than provoke laughs, most of its comic moments tend to elicit squirms of discomfort. Its focus on Buck’s voyeurism and stalking activities are of primary importance in this regard. Ultimately, I argue that by presenting us with a sympathetic protagonist who is also a stalker, Chuck&Buck queers its comedy and takes the viewer on a stalker’s odyssey that is also a journey through very queer territory indeed. Turning its back on positive depictions of gay characters, Chuck&Buck instead revels in Buck’s inappropriateness and in so doing asks us to sympathize with a sexually ambiguous, emotionally immature, socially inept queer man.
Evidence of the film’s desire to elicit viewer empathy for Buck is found in its deployment of melodramatic conventions: most notably, for example, in Buck’s four heart-rending crying scenes. These melodramatic moments show Buck’s innocence, vulnerability, and harmlessness and thus allow Buck’s voyeuristic activities (bolstered by silly, circus-like music) to be read as darkly humorous rather than dangerous or terrifying.
Further, Chuck&Buck’s more melodramatic, emotional scenes disrupt the film’s ability to maintain a consistent comic tone and set the audience up for its pathos-laden ending. Indeed, where the tensions between comedy and dark comedy/melodrama appear most significantly in the film is in its overt insistence on an "uplifting" denouement for its protagonist, Buck, and its apparent failure to fully achieve a happy ending for him (one that includes him in the aforementioned “new social unit” that is the central feature of comic resolution) or recognize the problematic aspects of its concluding sequence. I will return to these points in my analysis of the film’s last three minutes. But first we need to examine how Chuck&Buck represents its queer male characters more generally.