1. This essay was originally planned as the first chapter in my dissertation project. My dissertation explores the independent cinema phenomenon of the 1990s — its industrial practices, economics, and engagement with queer discourses — through an in-depth study of the films and star text of writer/ director Kevin Smith. As my choice of texts here and in the larger work reveals, I am particularly interested in the queerness of independent films that are not explicitly produced or marketed as Queer Cinema and address sub-cultural but not ostensibly LGBTQ audiences. [return to page one]
2. Shot on digital video, Chuck&Buck cost an estimated $250,000 to make and earned just over $1 million in the year of its release. As an example of a fairly successful independent ‘art-house’ film, Chuck&Buck exists in a border territory between mainstream Hollywood cinema, which “would never make [such a] movie … because it would be considered too threatening to a young male audience” (Holden E1) and other independent films with explicit queer political agendas, such as the work of NQC directors Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes. I suggest that the liminal positioning of Chuck&Buck has as much to do with its subject matter as its budget. For example, The Blair Witch Project, a non-queer independent film made on one-tenth of Chuck&Buck’s budget and released a year earlier, made over $140 million, one hundred and forty times what Chuck&Buck grossed.
3. Popular reviews of Chuck&Buck, whether positive or negative, tend to elide or at least downplay the sexual nature of Buck’s obsession with Chuck. For example, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times mentions only that “[Buck] is in love with Chuck,” and Jonathan Foreman of the New York Post, while accurately noting that the film “ends in a way that’s less than entirely satisfying,” concludes his review by declaring that “the movie’s main weakness is a cop-out failure to explain just what happened in childhood to make Buck — and Chuck — the way they are,” a misreading of the film’s diegesis that makes me wonder if Foreman willfully ignored the dialogue at certain points, as in the scene where Buck confronts Carlyn and tells her that he and Chuck “did sex things” as youths and that in so doing “[Chuck] made me this way.”
I do not mean to vilify any specific reviewer or review; I mean to point out that of the nine reviews of Chuck&Buck I found in U.S. newspapers and magazines, only three mention the titular characters’ sexual relationship directly. And each of these does so using either sterilized terms like “sexual experimentation” (New York Post) and “sexual play” (New York Times), which work to contain the threat of Chuck and Buck’s adult homosexuality by confining it to the ‘experimental’ past of childhood, or generalized phrases like “[things] get sexually strange” (Newsday), which says very little at all. In a variation on this trend, in his more explicitly homophobic review for Time magazine, Richard Schickel raises the issue of Buck’s homosexuality only to downplay its importance via a ridiculous, parenthetical non sequitur, asking “[who], outside the Christian right, cares anymore about anyone’s sexual orientation?” (This is a particularly obtuse observation in light of the success of the religious right in exploiting homophobia in their campaign against “gay marriage” in 2004.) Schickel asserts that it is Buck’s voyeurism, not his homosexuality, that is ultimately what “disturbs us” about the character and causes Schickel to give Chuck&Buck a negative review: “Any movie that sentimentalizes stalking ought to be shunned.”
4. As a character who is both a voyeur and is involved in a possible sexual identity crisis, Buck has much in common with Norman Bates, who, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), spies through a peephole at Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) just before he assumes his “Mrs. Bates” costume/ identity and murders her in the now-famous shower scene. Doty uses Norman Bates’s voyeuristic behavior to argue against desexualized readings of the character, saying that “anyone who constructs a peephole in order to watch women undressing is not asexual” though he also admits that he has difficulty deciding “what to make of Norman Bates psychosexually” (Flaming Classics 155). These comments apply equally well to my reading of the sexually ambiguous Buck, especially since his voyeurism, which on two occasions involves his watching Carlyn, can be interpreted (as Bates’s is) as a possible “straightening” or complexifying of his queerness. Interestingly, I am not the first to draw this parallel: one popular reviewer of Chuck&Buck makes explicit the connection between Buck and Bates, noting that “[experiencing Chuck&Buck] is a bit like being asked to accept dear old Norman Bates as Huck Finn” (Rainer 57).
5. Alexander Doty notes that
Also, as Geoff King points out, Chuck&Buck’s status as an independent production permits it more leeway than a studio film to disrupt or modify its generic conventions:
6. The motif of the domineering mother is further emphasized in a scene deleted from the film but available on the DVD version. In this scene, we learn from a conversation Buck has with a guest at Chuck’s promotion party that it was Buck’s mother who intervened and terminated his friendship with Chuck:
7. Interestingly, screenwriter Mike White hates this sequence and did not want it included in the film, feeling that it “[pushes] the envelope in terms of how insane Buck gets” (DVD commentary 2000). White reveals that it was written and shot in order to appease singer Marlo Thomas, whose seminal children’s classic “Free to Be You and Me” was originally slated to be the film’s theme song and who felt that the film’s lack of specificity about the extent of Carlyn’s knowledge of Chuck and Buck’s sexual history was confusing. Thomas’s song was ultimately pulled from the soundtrack anyway, though the sequence remains at director Arteta’s insistence and over White’s objections.
8. It is notable that the children’s theater where Buck stages Hank and Frank is concurrently rehearsing a production of The Wizard of Oz and that Buck uses a found copy of the Oz script as a model when he writes his play, to the point of including a green-faced witch figure recast in Hank and Frank as a threat to male homosociality/homosexuality. Oz is a well-known example of a cinematic text embraced by queer culture, particularly with respect to the gay star cult surrounding Judy Garland and the queerness of the “Cowardly Lion” character portrayed by Bert Lahr. In fact, discussing the cinematic version of Oz, Doty claims it as a predominantly queer text — specifically, an adolescent lesbian fantasy — that heterocentric readers have appropriated, eliding its queer (lesbian) elements:
Doty’s argument in this chapter is quite convincing, and its resonances with my reading of Chuck&Buck definitely enrich the queerness of the latter film, particularly given Buck’s friendship with child actor Tommy (Gino Buccola), who portrays both (queer) Young Frank in Buck’s play and the (queer) Cowardly Lion in the Oz production. Further, on the extra-textual level, Buck’s one possible heterosexual moment in Chuck&Buck, a scene with a female character named Jolie (Meredith Tucker) who he meets at Chuck’s promotion party, was cut down in postproduction (DVD commentary 2000), paralleling the queerness-enhancing changes made to the Oz screenplay under producer Arthur Freed:
9. Writer Mike White claims that he originally wrote the screenplay strictly from Buck’s point of view, i.e., there were no scenes in the film without Buck in them. Once the production got underway, he and director Miguel Arteta added scenes involving Chuck and Carlyn (DVD Commentary 2000). Further, as Geoff King notes in his discussion of independent film form in American Independent Cinema,
Hence even at the level of color the film is beholden to Buck’s subjectivity.
10. On the director’s commentary found on the Chuck&Buck DVD, Mike White and Miguel Arteta discuss at some length the response of audiences to the sequence where Chuck goes to Buck’s motel room to have sex with him, noting that many audience members refuse to accept Chuck as gay, believing that “He would never do that!” Still others feel that the film should have a “bloody ending,” as does one friend of White’s who says, “I kept waiting for Chuck to pull out a gun and shoot that loathsome pervert.” This desire to see non-heteronormative sexuality punished through violence is echoed — and ironically reversed — in one popular review which claims that the film
This review accuses Buck of initiating violence by invading Chuck’s “well-ordered” life; the reviewer later says that the film is “full of hostility and aggression.” Though there is a case to be made for the intrusive nature of Buck’s stalking behaviors — which the film presents as disturbing yet comedic and decidedly non-violent — I tend to read such pronouncements as being at least partially the projections of (a) viewers who are unable to take any form of stalkerism lightly and/or (b) heterocentric viewers who seek to resolve their own homophobic anxieties through (representations of) violence.
11. At a recent conference presentation of part of this paper it was pointed out to me that Buck’s jacket, being in a plaid pattern, can be read as connoting man-boyishness and therefore indicates a refusal on Buck’s part to assimilate into adulthood. I think this is an accurate reading, especially since Sam, hardly a model of conventional adulthood, admires the jacket as well (at least on Buck). Nevertheless, this costume change is a significant one for Buck and certainly constitutes at least a superficial move toward adulthood for him in any case. [return to page 3]
12. In fairness to Buck, the original idea to have him move in across the hall from Sam is suggested by Sam on the same night as the crotch-grabbing episode. However, this only reinforces the interpretation that their homosocial bond — in which Sam is a willing and active participant — has now placed them in permanent physical proximity to each other.
13. For an excellent discussion of the concept of queer time and space and the ways in which “[f]or queers, the separation between youth and adulthood quite simply does not hold,” see chapter 7 of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place (174).
14. Even the tagline on Chuck&Buck’s DVD cover, “When does a close friend become too close?” coyly suggests yet also elides its homoerotic content. In contrast, the tagline on the original Chuck&Buck movie poster read: “Remember those games we used to play?” While a bit more titillating than the DVD case tagline, this phrase is nevertheless vague enough to preserve the “surprise” of Buck’s (and Chuck’s!) gayness for the uninitiated viewer.
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