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White is sweet-natured and well-spoken, but both those traits are overpowered by an audible shyness--his voice dips in and out of whispers and nervous laughter throughout our half-hour conversation. In an interview with the Village Voice, he called his movie "personal but not autobiographical." Such fine gradations of inspiration are all part of something very new for him--talking about himself.
"I finally had to leave Sundance," he says of the film's debut there this past January. "People were walking up to me and telling me their life stories. I'm an introvert, and that was hard for me." The reviews in the New York and Los Angeles press had just come out the day we spoke, and the passionate reactions continued in print: "From people who liked Chuck & Buck, I got probably the best reviews I'll ever get," White says. "From people who didn't, the vitriol just poured off the page."
Much speculation at the Sundance Film Festival revolved around whether gay male viewers would be offended at White and director Miguel Arteta's implied link between homosexuality and emotional immaturity. If homoerotic experimentation was truly "just a phase" for Chuck, does that mean Buck is stuck in some kind of psychosexual rut? The writer-actor insists that, except for one reporter at the recent press junket who was pissed when White refused to identify his movie as a "gay film," there has been little negative response from the gay viewers he's spoken with or from the gay press in general.
"It's not like I'm afraid to call Chuck & Buck a 'gay film,'" White insists. "I don't give a shit about the kind of people who would avoid a movie just because they thought it had gay themes. But I really wanted to upset the apple cart, to keep the ambiguities intact, and force people to come to their own conclusions. If people have problems with the movie, and they come up and talk to me about it, they seem to leave satisfied, or at least less offended." Besides, he says, "I don't think the word 'gay' would mean anything to Buck."
Mike White's point is well-taken. That word is a label individuals choose (or reject) once they arrive at a certain point of self-awareness, not to mention public identity. An 11-year-old with a crush on his male best friend would not declare his feelings to be "gay" (although he might use it as a generic insult). And as for the psychoanalytical trope about homosexuality being a form of arrested development, it's hard for homo guys with hetero female friends to take that one seriously: Many wives and girlfriends would laugh their asses off at the notion that heterosexuality is key to adult, responsible relations between the sexes. As White points out, the character in Chuck & Buck whom Buck has selected to star in his play Hank & Frank as Chuck's onstage doppelgänger (Paul Weitz) is monosyllabic, dim-witted, and straight, yet no one seems to pay his limitations much attention.
They are, of course, less conspicuous. As played by White, Buck is a pale-eyelash fluttering, perpetually frowning, pathologically self-centered stalker whose first reaction, when he visits Chuck's Los Angeles condo, is to wonder why there aren't any pictures of him there. He's also a walking oral fixation--the lollipop becomes a leitmotif in Miguel Arteta's movie. When Buck isn't sucking on one of those, he's slurping a Popsicle or a piece of licorice. I had to ask Mike White the obvious: Is a lollipop ever just a lollipop for Buck? Nope.
"The character, in part, came from reading a lot of Freud," he answers. "I think Freud is fucking brilliant in the compelling way he's able to whittle down behavior to the sum of sexual impulses. Everything Buck does stems from a sexual impulse; it's all a sublimation or substitution of that desire."
There's another indirect and very different influence on Chuck & Buck: the TV show Dawson's Creek, on which White served as a writer for a couple years.
"When I worked on Dawson's Creek, the first character came out," he remembers. "And we had to take great care to make him the most attractive and sensitive and caring person, just the nicest, handsomest guy on the whole planet. I'm always interested in the darker parts inside people. I think Buck is a reaction to that, a character who's 180 degrees in the opposite direction."
Still, White is not entirely insensitive to homosexual media representation in the era of Dr. Laura. His father is the Rev. Mel White, author of Stranger at the Gate and, after Cathedral of Hope's Michael Piazza, the most prominent gay Christian activist in America. As White notes, this has been "the summer of arrests" for his dad, whose organization Soulforce (founded in Dallas, where he used to live) has staged peaceful demonstrations at a number of denominational counsel meetings as the issue of same-sex unions is debated. "My father's sensibilities don't run to the creepy side like mine do," White chuckles skittishly, but it was important to him that Mel White approve. "He's super supportive," White says. "He told me he's a fan."
Mel White came out to his entire family when his son was 12, so you can see where Mike White's conception of sexuality--as rather more fluid than most of us like to think--originated. He doesn't want to straitjacket his movie as a "gay film"; does he consider himself a "gay man"?
"I don't identify myself as gay," White declares. He pauses, and swoops down into another jittery whisper. "I don't identify myself as not gay, either." One more pause, and then anxious laughter. "Oh God, I sound like Michael Stipe. But given the idea that I wanted to convey in the film--that people can jump in and out of categories--it doesn't seem productive to categorize myself."
It's important to White that there be an element of surprise for people who see Chuck & Buck; if more folks surrendered their assumptions about sexuality on screen, maybe they'd relax the expectations of themselves and others. To that end, the dopily merry title of his movie is deliberate.
"Actually, I'm hoping that we'll trick some people into coming to see it, that they'll think it's an entirely different movie, some goofy comedy or action film. Or maybe a buddy movie. And when they sit down in the theater, they'll realize it's the anti-buddy movie."
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