JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Buck relies on Beverly for emotional support.

A brand new start? Buck works as a filing clerk at the theater.

Close analysis of final wedding sequence

Shot 1 – Buck takes his wedding invite...

...and zips it up into his backpack, symbolically zipping up his desire for Chuck.

Shot 2 – Buck’s new life is marked by his adult (?) clothes and austere apartment.

Shots 3-4 – Sam: “You look great! Can I borrow that jacket?”

Shot 5 – Sam watches Buck walk away again. Is Sam a closeted gay voyeur?

Shot 7 – Chuck wears white on his wedding day. A symbol of purity after his final tryst with Buck?

Shot 8 – Buck sits in front of a possibly dyke-ish woman.

Shot 8 – Even in the final moments, Buck hopes against hope that Chuck won’t say “I do” to Carlyn.

Shot 10 – Buck stands in the background of this shot between Carlyn and Chuck. His social immaturity and possibly his queer sexuality keep him marginalized at this public celebration of heterosexuality. 

Shot 11 – Buck eats his wedding cake.

Shot 12 – An old man, representative of heteronormative patriarchy, looks on approvingly at Chuck and Carlyn’s first dance as a married couple.

Shot 13 – Buck stands in the back with the women.

Shot 15 – The coded-gay man smiles at Buck.

Shot 16 – “I love wedding cake.”

Shot 17 – “Yeah. It’s sweet.”

057: Shot 18 – Freedom of the heart at the end of a stalker’s odyssey.

 

Carlyn and Beverly

Chuck&Buck reveals its awareness of itself as a queerly transgressive text primarily in its depiction of the two principal women in the narrative, Chuck’s fiancée Carlyn and Buck’s friend and theater director Beverly. Throughout the film’s diegesis these women act as helpers to Buck. Carlyn invites him to L.A. in the first place and to Chuck’s promotion party once he arrives there, and also galvanizes Chuck to attend the performance of Buck’s play. Beverly both directs Buck’s play, Hank and Frank, and frequently acts as Buck’s guide and emotional supporter during times of crisis. These two women also serve as points of identification for the (presumably adult) audience, often providing the voice of reason and maturity we might need in order to comfortably swallow Buck’s bizarre behavior with a grain of humor.

For example, late in the film, Carlyn advises Buck to seek professional therapy, and while it appears that he does not follow her advice exactly, he does seek a cathartic experience of his own design — his final sexual deal with Chuck — immediately following his talk with her. In short, he seems capable of listening to Carlyn’s reasonable suggestion despite his misogyny and his queerly inflected interpretation of her idea.

Beverly acts as a surrogate mother figure to Buck in the film, literally supplying a shoulder for him to cry on after his final encounter with Chuck. However, she also represents a director/ critic who takes an artistic interest in Buck and his play. In one of the funniest sequences in the film, Beverly offers to provide a beat-by-beat analysis of Hank and Frank for Buck, and in so doing calls the play a “homoerotic, misogynistic love story.” Beverly explains to Buck that the play’s witch character, by cursing and crippling Hank, symbolically castrates him. This is a pretty standard pop-psychoanalytic observation that is borne out by the snippets of Hank and Frank we see in the film. In the play, the evil witch, who in her modern guise in the second act of the play is dressed to resemble Carlyn, casts a curse on the two titular characters and ends the play by threatening them both with an oversized meat cleaver! However, Buck resists this interpretation of his work, calling it instead a “fairy tale” and asking Beverly what kind of TV shows she watches.

The humor here is generated by Buck’s total ignorance/ repudiation of the Freudian Oedipal discourse that the film so clearly implicates him in. Hence this is a key moment where the film reveals itself to have a humorously ironic point of view outside Buck’s, and that it is willing to generate humor at his expense. Further, Buck’s play, a textbook Oedipal scenario and quite accurately a “homoerotic, misogynistic love story,” is a reflection of the film Chuck&Buck itself, but without a meta-discursively aware figure like Beverly, who can comment on the proceedings as they transpire. For the viewer, Beverly’s awareness of the Freudian implications of Hank and Frank extend to the diegesis of Chuck&Buck, of which the former is an obvious mirror, and thus her comments here offer one possible reading of the film itself. This is a reading the film itself resists — for example, the film’s “witch,” Carlyn, is anything but one. However, Beverly’s nurturing, meta-critical presence both humanizes Buck and at the same time makes him the object of laughter and calls attention to the pop-psychoanalytic discourses that the film itself queerly plays with.

The wedding sequence

Now to turn to the last three minutes of Chuck&Buck and see what it reveals about Buck’s queerness and his place in culture as depicted in the film. Throughout this section, I will frequently refer to the shots by number as they appear in my sequence analysis chart (see numbered images to left).

The sequence begins with Buck arriving in the theater office and receiving an invitation to Chuck and Carlyn’s wedding. When Beverly asks him who is getting married, Buck replies, “This guy I know,” disavowing his special relationship with Chuck and — perhaps — signifying that Buck has now moved on healthily from his infatuation with Chuck. (We shall see if the remainder of the sequence bears out this possibility.) Further, as he delivers this line in shot 1, Buck puts the invitation into his backpack on the table — at the level of his crotch — and zips it up, symbolically “zipping up” his sexual desire for Chuck.

Shot 2 finds Buck at his apartment, preparing to attend the wedding, adjusting his hair and tie in the mirror. Everything about this shot indicates that Buck has transitioned from his previous childlike state into full-blown adulthood, or at least that he knows the appropriate external markers of adult-ness. His apartment is apparently toy free, the art on the walls is subdued, and there is no sign of the collages of his mother and father that have meant so much to him throughout the rest of the film. His clothing is different as well, as an awkwardly plaid (he hasn’t fully grown up!) sport jacket and tie have replaced the clothes of his boyhood: the horizontally striped, primary colored shirts and faded blue Members Only jacket.[11] [open notes in new window] Shot 3 shows the newly attired Buck leaving his apartment — the new apartment he has moved into directly across the hall from Sam’s, reiterating Sam’s position as a surrogate or substitute for Chuck in Buck’s life.[12]

Shots 4 and 5 are of particular interest because they are the last shots we will see of Sam, and they repeat the queer “scoping” motif from Sam and Buck’s earlier encounters. Once he notices Buck and turns to look fully at him in shot 4, Sam compliments him on his appearance, saying, “You look great.” Sam then almost immediately disavows this potentially queer position by admiring Buck’s jacket, displacing his desire for the man onto an article of his clothing — an ironic disavowal since he is lingering to watch Buck walk away down the hall as he says it. This two shot sequence once again queers both Sam and Buck, making Buck the object of a queer man’s desiring gaze and thereby codifying them both as gay. This codification will continue at the wedding, when Buck becomes the visual object of yet another queer man’s appraising eye.

At the wedding, Buck never shares the frame with either of the other two principle characters, Chuck or Carlyn, during the entirety of the sequence. Buck is seen with a short-haired woman (whose hairstyle could connote female queerness/ dyke-ness) who sits behind him during the ceremony (shot 8) and with a coded-gay man at the end (shots 15 and 16, to which I will return). By contrast, the ivy and trees behind Chuck and Carlyn (shots 7 and 9) serve to “naturalize” their union. And their white clothing (Chuck wears a white tuxedo, Carlyn a traditional bridal gown) suggests normative sexual purity and marital fidelity: a “straightening” of Chuck, since only a few sequences earlier he spent the night having sex with Buck. Chuck and Carlyn’s union is further legitimized by representatives of patriarchal culture in shot 12, where an old man looks on approvingly as the newlyweds begin their traditional first dance. As counterpoint to this shot, the next one shows Buck looking on with queer desire for Chuck, then finally casting his eyes down, as two women stand talking behind him: while Chuck and Carlyn dance in a privileged social space ringed by men, Buck is left on the sidelines with the women. The next shot (14) is a close up on Chuck and Carlyn kissing during the dance, sealing their heterosexual connection to the exclusion of Buck (and possibly the queerness/ bisexuality he represents with regard to Chuck).

Now enter the coded-gay man (Yehuda Maayan), who wears an earring in his left ear, a neatly pressed dark blue pinstriped suit, and has a closely trimmed vandyke beard. This man is the only person Buck talks to during the wedding sequence, in a conversation initiated by the man, who says “I love wedding cake” as he looks at Buck meaningfully. In fact, he looks at Buck appraisingly and with a smile three separate times during the 27 seconds they spend onscreen together. However, distracted by his wedding cake and his interest in looking at Chuck, Buck seems oblivious to these advances and looks as if he is giving off “gay vibes” but does not know it. Although he responds to the queer man, agreeing that the wedding cake is “sweet,” Buck continues (through shots 15, 16, and 18) to stare out toward the dance floor: even here at the end of the film, Buck only has eyes for Chuck. His futilely hopeful look in shot 8 (will Chuck say “No” to the minister?) and his downcast glance in shot 13 carry the same symbolic import as does his zipping up his crotch in shot 1: Buck sublimates his sexual desire for Chuck (and perhaps other men) into his love of sweets. He ends the film wolfing down wedding cake, watching on as the renewed social order of classic comedy is celebrated more or less without his participation. An outsider to heteronormativity, he is also (as yet) unable to claim the fullness of his own queer sexual identity. As Alexander Doty writes in the conclusion to Making Things Perfectly Queer,

“we queers have become locked into ways of seeing ourselves … that perpetuate our status as subcultural, parasitic, self-oppressive hangers-on: alienated, yet grabbing for crumbs or crusts and wishfully making this into a whole meal” (104).

While the “crumbs or crusts” Doty specifically refers to are queer elements of heterocentrist mainstream texts, it is hard not to see Buck in this comment, literally left with crumbs of wedding cake in the place of a “meal” of queer sexual fulfillment and acceptance.

Queer play

At the outset of this essay I briefly mentioned Chuck&Buck’s appropriation of certain melodramatic tropes, such as Buck’s frequent crying, and I would like to return to that point here. In shot 16 of the wedding sequence, as the music — the melos of melodrama — for Chuck and Carlyn’s first dance ends, Buck’s theme song, “Freedom of the Heart,” fades in. An acoustic-guitar version of this song has already played at various points in the film, typically accompanying or connoting Buck’s childhood memories, but the specific version used here at the end, which is more upbeat and celebratory and includes drums, bass, banjo, and full vocal harmonies, is used at only one other time, when Buck travels by car from his home town to Los Angeles. Thus, through its uplifting tenor and its deployment earlier in the narrative, we can conclude that this music is meant to make us feel happy for Buck, celebrating with him a transitional moment in his life when he is moving on to bigger and better things. Played here, as Buck stands watching Chuck kiss Carlyn as he stands idly by, cake plate in hand, it feels subtly ironic to me.

It does work on me emotionally, causing me to feel uplifted and wanting a happy resolution for Buck, but I cannot escape the uneasiness it provokes in me as well. Why should I feel happy for a queerly identified man who is still so infatuated with his straight-passing first love that he has to sublimate his feelings and desires into consumption of the guy’s wedding cake? The fact that the film’s story is told mostly from Buck’s point of view may help to explain the seeming naiveté of this contradictory ending, but as a critical viewer I am not completely satisfied.

If there is a more than superficially positive way to view Buck’s future prospects in light of Chuck&Buck’s conclusion — and I think the film queerly repudiates superficial positivity even as it plays with it in its closing sequence — it may be via the concept of play, which, in the form of “camp,” is often linked to queerness and queer production and reception strategies. Jack Babuscio unequivocally declares that

“[t]he term camp describes those elements in a person, situation or activity which express, or are created by, a gay sensibility” (40).

And Doty notes that

“camp and the sociopolitical continue to be mainstays of queer humor, particularly as gay and lesbian producers and audiences have been sharing and combining these two forms/strategies more and more since the mid-1970s” (Flaming Classics 79).

In the context of Chuck&Buck, itself a queerly humorous text depicting an emotionally immature stalker’s odyssey through rejection toward forgiveness and “freedom of the heart,” play is most often evoked in an explicitly sexual way, as when Buck proposes to Chuck that they play “one of those games where you stick your dick in my mouth and I stick mine in yours,” or when Chuck pulls a toy truck from underneath his back during his sexual encounter with Buck in Buck’s motel room. Disturbing as the connection between childhood game-playing and queer sexual experimentation may be to many, in Chuck&Buck it is depicted in a humorous yet (melo)dramatically resonant way that, I believe, asks its audience to accept it as very real and potentially dangerous to its participants. Such resonance is evinced, for example, in Buck's repeated claims that his and Chuck’s early sexual activities “made me this way,” i.e., emotionally immature, yet the pair’s early sexual experiences are also narrativized as a phenomenon that can be moved through and incorporated into a more adult self, as Buck seems to do by the end of the film.

It is this very pairing of childlike play and queer sexuality, which Chuck&Buck depicts in the unfolding of Buck’s obsessive stalkerism, that offers the most hope for Buck and for queer expression in general. If queer sexual “play,” particularly between straight- or at least non-strictly-gay-identifying men, were more widely accepted in U.S. culture, then characters like Chuck and Buck would have no need to repress or hide parts of their sexuality, and the Bucks of the world would not be marginalized from places of social privilege on sexual grounds.

For while Buck may still be emotionally immature and thus something of a social outcast even during the wedding sequence, it is also true that in the film’s diegesis immaturity is validated by Beverly as being part of adulthood: “I’m a mess!” she admits to Buck during their last conversation. Chuck&Buck’s conclusion suggests that the immaturity/maturity binary is not so firm as some might think, and that real growth and true freedom of the heart is achieved by fluid integration of younger selves rather than dualistic denial of the past. Hence, having demonstrated his ability to grow and mature in this fluidly queer, playful way, Buck earns his place at the wedding. But that place is still that of an outsider, an ex-relationship of Chuck’s. This conclusion makes me wonder if, despite the indicators that he has grown up some — his suit and tie, his appropriate behavior in the restaurant where he sees Chuck, his new job at the theater — Buck is still framed as an outsider at the ceremony due to the politics of his sexuality.

“Freedom of the Heart”

A reversal of the exclusionary politics of heterocentric culture in favor of a new social practice of inclusion forms the basis of Doty’s broadest definition of queerness, a definition that Doty also connects to the concept of play:

“through playfully occupying various queer positions … we (whether straight-, gay-, lesbian-, or bi-identifying) are offered spaces to express a range of erotic desire frequently linked in Western cultures to nostalgic and romantic adult conceptions of childhood” (Making Things 4).

This queer play of erotic desire is inimical to heterocentrist, middle-class norms, a point that proto-queer film theorist Parker Tyler emphasizes when he brazenly declares in Screening the Sexes:

“I violently repudiate what is commonly known as respectability, which itself is an antiquated strategy of the dishonest bourgeois establishment” (xxiii).

I cannot help but hear Buck in this statement, and Buck’s immaturity and stalkerism in Chuck&Buck can be read in this context as a form of resistance to heteronormative pressures, a creation of space and time for his queer erotic desires in the present and future. This is precisely what makes the last shot of the film simultaneously pleasurable and disturbing. I want Buck to “grow up” and move on from his obsession with Chuck Sitter, and perhaps give up his voyeurism, but I do not want him to give up his playful brand of queerness in the process. Chuck&Buck shows us that even the most ostensibly homophobic man, Sam, can learn to accept queerness and even tolerate being sexually propositioned if such things are approached playfully and honestly. And I hope for Buck that he continues to “out” his queer desires in this way rather than repress them under his new jacket and tie and adult ways. For if Buck is to really experience “Freedom of the Heart,” which must include the freedom to pursue his sexual desires and claim his queer identity, he will need a free space, a playful space, a truly queer space in which to do it.[13] The principle way in which Chuck&Buck confounds a queerly positioned reader like myself is that it fails to depict such a space for Buck, or even to show us that he is aware that it exists.

However, it is this ambiguity around openly declaring its queerness that makes Chuck&Buck such a pleasurable, rich, and, as I will argue by way of conclusion, potentially subversive text. Its very title, Chuck&Buck, printed without any spaces between the words and the ampersand, emphasizes the strength of the queer sexual bond between the two titular characters (I imagine the two of them spooning) and illustrates Eve Sedgwick’s point that

“[t]he double-edged potential for injury in the scene of gay coming out … results partly from the fact that the erotic identity of the person who receives the disclosure is apt also to be implicated in, hence perturbed by it” (Epistemology 81).

Obviously, Chuck is implicated in Buck’s gayness, and although Buck never makes an explicit verbal claim to gay identity — he never says “I am gay” — he nevertheless comes out through his deeds, desires, and persistence in pursuing Chuck, forcing the latter to acknowledge his own implicit gayness. Further, although the film’s strategy of showing gayness without verbally declaring it as such[14] could be read as reinforcement of the structure of the closet, perpetuating the “open secret” constitutive of homosexual existence in Western culture that Sedgwick describes in Epistemology of the Closet (22, 71-2), the delight Chuck&Buck takes in modulating between avowal and elision suggests to me that there is more going on here than simple homophobia, although homophobic disavowal and the market potential thereof may be part of the equation.

However, even if Chuck&Buck participates in shoring up the closet, perpetuating the queer man-boy stereotype and denying Buck access to a truly queer space, it does so, as Geoff King points out, in the diegetic context of Buck’s childlike naiveté:

“[T]he inappropriate nature of Buck’s fixation is located more in its painful and embarrassingly non-adult qualities than in the specifically sexual dimension” (243).

Though I am skeptical about how easily we can separate Buck’s non-adultness from his sexuality — one of the aims of this study has been to point out the frequency with which our culture conflates man-boyish immaturity with non-heterosexuality — I am nevertheless inclined to accept King’s argument here, which continues:

“The use of a naive-but-honest childlike perspective to highlight the superficiality of particular constructions of adult normality is … articulated here in a manner that is unusually unsettling” (King 243).

I agree that Buck’s innocence functions as a device by which the film exposes the superficiality and hypocrisy of compulsorily heterosexual middle-class adulthood, and what’s more, I see that naiveté as something that Buck, post- the events of the film, may yet transform into a more aware and socially acceptable form of queer play.

Further, if at the end of the film Buck doesn’t know what he is, or at least never expresses it in terms of a stable identity, I take this to be a productive ambiguity, one that undermines fixed identity categories that can be used to confine or contain. The unspoken quality of Buck’s queerness leaves him a much more ambiguous, free, and potentially subversive figure than, say, the stereotypical “tragic queer” or “sad young man” who features in so many queer and non-queer films, or the homosexual character played only for laughs (Dyer 117). So while Buck may well inhabit the same general terrain as a stereotypical queer man-boy, his fate is not sealed by the end of the narrative. This “Freedom of the Heart” opens up endless possibilities, an empowering potential with which I think we are asked to identify in the film’s final shot of Buck smiling hopefully as his theme song plays.

Lastly, all of Chuck&Buck’s seeming coyness around queerness does not erase or change the gay content of the film itself. As King notes,

“[f]eatures such as Chuck and Buck demonstrate the indie sector’s continued potential for generating gay/lesbian and more diffuse impressions of queerness…” (249).

It is in this second respect that Chuck&Buck is particularly effective. For not only does Chuck&Buck delight in making us uncomfortable, playing Buck’s queer stalkerism and Sam’s over-the-top, homophobic machismo for laughs (or at least squirms), in the end the film does challenge us — and I think this is the most exciting aspect of its final sequence — to see Buck, a decidedly gay man in deed if not in label, as a comic hero who prevails despite the shortcomings and hypocrisies of straight culture as embodied in his homophobic counterpart, Chuck.

In depicting male queerness as diffuse, the film belies the very straightness of its straight-identifying characters, as we see when Buck's relations with the men around him repeatedly draw out their own repressed homosexual desires. It is this last fact that gives me the most hope about the cultural work Chuck&Buck has done and has yet to do, for it shows its audiences that queerness isn’t just germane to the man-boys and the socially marginalized but is an oft-closeted potential that exists in many if not all of us. This embracing of Doty’s inclusive concept of queerness is Chuck&Buck’s most important contribution to the increased queer media visibility that is even now reaching a new high-water mark, and whose next phase must invariably lead to wider critical and cultural acknowledgment of the non-straightness that pervades our media products and subjectivities.

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