Monday, July 30, 2012

Miguel Arteta | Chuck & Buck

fun, fun, fun!
by Douglas Messerli

Mike White (writer), Miguel Arteta (director) Chuck & Buck / 2000

The death of actress Lupe Ontiveros this week led me to again watch the 2000 film, Chuck & Buck, in which she plays the savvy and salty theater manager and director Beverly Franco, a role very much at the center of this unusual film. And, although I had already written a brief paragraph or two about Mike White’s script in my 2007 essay on “The Unordinary Obsessions of Ordinary Lives,” [included in this same volume], I felt that the film also fit nicely with the movies about Los Angeles I have gathered under the rubric of “Rebels without a Home.”

      It is, however, difficult to describe the central figure of the film, Buck O’Brien (Mike White), as a rebel. Perhaps this 27 year old man who acts more like a 14 year old boy might be more likened to a slightly retarded stalker. But he is most definitely, like many of the figures in my observation of this growing film “genre,” an outsider, someone who arrives in Los Angeles without the slightest ability to comprehend and fit into whatever one might perceive as Angeleno “normality,” and, accordingly, he and the city are a perfect fit.

     At the age of 11, he and a neighbor boy, Charlie “Chuck” Sitter (Chris Weitz) shared a close friendship that included, as some adolescent boys’ lives do, a deeply sexual component of rhyming words with their childhood monikers, the kind of homosexual kinship in which some children participate in order to prepare themselves for their later heterosexual lives. Personally, I did not experiment in that male-bonding frenzy, having, as I joke, been absent from “male-bonding” 101 and, also, perhaps fearful that if I had so acted out my inclinations, it would be evident that they were not a temporary “aberration.”

     Something like that clearly has been the case with Buck, since Chuck eventually moved away and is at film’s beginning a “normalized” LA heterosexual record-producing executive, who has shacked up with his girlfriend, Carlyn (Beth Colt). His kindness of accepting the invitation to funeral of his childhood friend’s mother, is rewarded with an attempt by Buck to continue the childhood “suck and fuck” games. Like too many stereotyped views of gay figures, Buck has been clearly a “mamma’s boy” who has refused to grow up, his childhood toys and music surrounding him (including a song whose major chorus includes the words “Fun, Fun, Fun’), along with his presumably mother-induced hypochondriac conditions, one of which demands he sleep with a vaporizer. Buck is, in short, an absolutely clueless man-child who behaves so strangely that only his mother could have loved him. Chuck, who has now rechristened himself Charlie, although sympathetic with the situation of the mother’s death, is quite obviously shocked and repelled by the Buck’s sexual come-on, and immediately determines to leave. Carlyn behaves like any civilized and double-talking adult, inviting Buck to come see them sometime in LA.

     The problem is that Buck has had no lessons in social double-talk, taking them at their word, soon after withdrawing $10,000 from the money left to him by his mother to make the trip to Los Angeles. After several phone brush-offs, he begins to stalk his boyhood lover’s office and house, finally pretending to be a delivery boy to reencounter  Charlie, forcing him to an uncomfortable picture opportunity and, ultimately, getting himself invited to a party at their house, where, in comically uncomfortable interchanges with Charlie’s sophisticated friends, the film reveals some insightful comments about the record executive’s current life:

                    Party guest: How was he like in his former life?
                    Buck: Oh he was fun!   

At another moment we find evidence of Charlie’s retreat from a life of “fun, fun, fun: “Charlie is not a very sentimental guy.” When Buck reveals that their relationship was very special, one guest comments: “Charlie hasn’t changed. He’s still very exclusive.”

     The intrusion upon his former friend’s moves Buck even further from any possibility of communicating with him ever again, polite invitations being postponed in a way that Angelenos have of distancing themselves from those with whom they feel they need distancing—an easy disappearing act in a city so vast.

     Having failed through direct contact, and having already created the “hypothetical” possibility through the local theater manager, Beverly, in a playhouse across the street of Charlie’s office, Buck determines to write a play that will reveal the truth: that Carlyn is a kind of witch who has come between the men’s relationship, in the play named Hank and Frank. Hiring Beverly to direct the play at $25 an hour, renting out the theater for one night, Buck oversees the casting, insisting that they hire a third rate actor (as Beverly puts it, “He was the worst thing we saw today”) simply because he, Sam (Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz’s real-life brother) shares the darkly handsome look of Charlie. Eventually Buck even moves in across the hall from Sam’s apartment and, upon one occasion, attempts to replace Sam with Charlie as a lover. Once again, Buck is rejected, but Sam, who admits he is himself a little “weird,” forgives Buck and the two remain friends.

      The play is an obvious disaster. Of Buck, Beverly comments, “I think you have something weird about women. I think you have something weird about men.” Of the play, she observes:

                           Beverly:  I see it as a love story between Hank and Frank.
                           Buck: You do?
                           Beverly: It’s like a homoerotic misogynistic love story
                           Buck:  Well, it is what it is.

The important thing for Buck is that he has been able to lure Charlie to see the play!  Charlie’s reaction suggests the end of any possible further communication.

     Yet, White’s ever-shifting script throws another curve ball, as Buck confronts Chuck once again, this time at a late night dinner meeting with clients at a bar, making his own “deal,” so to speak, by suggesting that if Charlie is willing to have sex with him one more time, he will never bother him again. To our surprise, Charlie accepts, even admitting during their sexual encounter that he does remember the childhood events:

                            Buck: Do you remember me?
                            Chuck: I remember everything.

In short, there is a haunting edginess about this film that hints that male heterosexual’s childhood same-sex encounters have a deeper effect upon their lives than is generally admitted. And there is another issue at which White has been hinting all along: the sense of joy of youth is somehow changed in the adult male-female interrelationships. When Charlie tells Buck, “You have to grow up,” Buck responds—reminding me a bit of Peter Pan—“Like you?”

       The one night sexual slip, it is clear, is never revealed to Charlie’s lover, whom he soon marries. And Buck, with the now successful Beverly having become the theater’s director, has found a place in the company in her former job. A chance encounter between Charlie and Carlyn with Buck at a local restaurant, results in what is merely gulp of deep wistfulness on Buck’s part, as he remains in quiet discussions with his theater peers. He apparently has grown up to be comfortable in his own identity, which, after all, is what the difficult city offers anyone who lasts it out.

Los Angeles, July 29, 2012

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