“You‘re the first person to ask me that.”
Screenwriter and reluctant star Mike White is somewhere in Larchmont on his 30th birthday, explaining the inspirations behind Chuck & Buck, a stalker comedy turned sexually ambiguous love story that is supremely adept at pushing deeply suppressed emotional buttons even as it flirts with taboos like pedophilia and child pornography. Immaculately crafted and manipulatively powerful, it will no doubt incite controversy and possible outrage in gay and straight audiences alike. All of this controversy should be easily accommodated by White’s considered boilerplate on gender theory and Freudian theology. Except that his interviewer has just asked him point-blank if he‘s gay.
“I don’t define myself that way,” he answers reflectively. “At least in my experience, it‘s a bit more ambiguous.”
Directed by Miguel Arteta, whose Star Maps was pigeonholed as a gay niche film, Chuck & Buck strikes back with a vengeance, exploding the whole notion of what constitutes sexual identity and fanning the fears of a straight liberal audience that secretly suspects it’s been far too tolerant. Shot on intentionally ugly digital video that most resembles surveillance footage, and reacting against a sensibility learned by rote in the TV trenches (White was a staff writer on both Dawson‘s Creek and Freaks and Geeks), the film basically does for the gay love story what Neil LaBute’s first two features did for the office affair and serial monogamy — turn it into a sentient horror story. Yet even the terms “gay” and “straight” do Chuck & Buck a disservice, as its tone is one of resolute creepiness.
“When I was little,” says White, “there was a kid in my neighborhood who had Down syndrome, who all of the liberal families went out of their way to include and indulge. And the minute he grabbed my sister and tried to plant one on her, everyone got really upset and disturbed. He was harmless until he showed that he had a sexuality. There are so many movies that have that character, the kid who never grew up: Isn‘t that charming? Doesn’t it get us in touch with our childhood selves? But what if our childhood self is disturbed and has sexual impulses and all those things?”
Out of this childhood memory, White fashioned a tale of estranged childhood friends — Chuck, a successful L.A. music executive played by Chris Weitz, and Buck, still an emotional 11-year-old, played by White — who reunite at the funeral of Buck‘s mother. Like the duckling whose impulse for love is imprinted on the first living thing it sees, Buck follows Chuck back to L.A., insinuating himself into his former playmate’s life, disrupting his impending marriage, even representing an unannounced sexual threat. In fact, so successful was White in creating the character, both on the page and in his indelible portrayal, that it is almost impossible not to imagine the subject as somehow autobiographical.
This is doubtless exacerbated by White‘s own life. He grew up in Pasadena, and his father, Mel White, was a Congregationalist minister who worked as a ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham. When Mike was 12, Mel White came out of the closet to his family and friends, living a dual existence for roughly a decade until both Mike and his sister had started college, at which point he came out publicly and became a national gay activist. Mel White is widely credited with the recent pronounced tolerance in Falwell’s official views toward gays and lesbians, culminating in a symposium the two chaired at Falwell‘s Lynchburg, Virginia, church on the topic of anti-gay violence. In a recent Frontline documentary titled Assault on Gay America, the elder White is visible at Falwell’s side, and Falwell speaks with apparent affection for his friend of 15 years.
“I think it had a huge effect on me,” says Mike White of his father. “I think, basically, my main interest creatively is about that gap between how people present themselves and what really is going on under the surface. I guess growing up with my family, I have a very low tolerance for the hypocrisy of people, of saying one thing by their behavior, when their reality is something totally opposite. That disconnect.”
Among the more interesting choices in the film is that both leads are played by nonactors and writers, as much for budgetary reasons as artistic ones. But stranger still is that the romantic lead, as it were, and a character based on him in a play-within-the-film, are played by brothers Chris and Paul Weitz (30 and 34, respectively), the co-writers and -directors of American Pie. Like White, the Weitzes, children of Manhattan privilege, had an unorthodox upbringing. Their father is fashion designer John Weitz, a contemporary of Pierre Cardin and Geoffrey Beene, who later achieved renewed prominence with several well-received biographies of Nazi war criminals. Their mother, actress Susan Kohner, was nominated for an Academy Award for Douglas Sirk‘s Imitation of Life; their grandfather, Paul Kohner, was Billy Wilder’s agent.
“Paul went to Wesleyan with Miguel and Mike,” explains the Cambridge-educated, avowedly straight Chris Weitz, sitting in the bungalow he shares with his brother on the Paramount lot. “Miguel didn‘t have that much money to make this movie, because he wanted a deal whereby he could make exactly the movie he wanted with no strings attached, otherwise there was no point in making it whatsoever. And part of the appeal, I think, is that I was free.
”So Miguel called me and left a message on my machine saying, ’Do you want to be in this movie?‘ I thought he was talking about a 10-minute short or something. So I called back and said, ’Yeah, I absolutely want to do it. As long as it doesn‘t involve me having anal sex onscreen, I’m your man.‘ Then I got the script, and I thought, ’Wow, this is pretty close.‘ I had one really sleepless night where I imagined my dad having a heart attack watching the movie and my friends making fun of me, and maybe learning stuff about myself that I wasn’t comfortable learning. But then it was really clear that I would be such a pussy if I didn‘t do it, because I’m Joe Liberal Guy. And I‘m really glad I did, because I got past what people would think.“
”Oh, women don’t have a problem with it. They‘re not as kind of ’ookie‘ about this stuff. They’re generally fine with that kind of material.“ He pauses. ”Hopefully.“
For all the good faith generated by the emergence of an official gay genre, far too much of it still seems sanitized, sanctioned and approved by committee to promote a palatable lifestyle. Which makes it all the more relevant that those artists working the topography wear their true colors, and proudly. As much as it flies in the face of political correctitude, it seems a fair question to put to the film‘s author:
Is he or isn’t he?
”At one of the last screenings,“ says White, ”there was a guy who was furious that I wouldn‘t say that Chuck was gay, and that Chuck was just going off to get married because he was following this sham of his life. And that is so far from what I intended, you know? Is it not possible that it happened this way because this is how it happened? If I had to define myself, I’d say I was bisexual. Except that I shudder at the idea of that, because it seems coy or something, and at some point you get defensive. But that‘s how my life has played out. This is what it is. And for me, the interesting part is when you try to say we’re more alike than you think. That‘s hard for people to deal with.“
Weitz concurs. ”As someone from the New York Blade News asked, ’So is there all this butt-slapping sex that didn‘t hit the screen?’ But there wasn‘t, there was only this tender little moment that was handled very discreetly. Which, maybe, is all the more disturbing.“