The film I have chosen to analyse in depth as an example of American Independent Cinema is Miguel Arteta’s 2000 film Chuck ; Buck. I will be analysing how the film fits into the category of being an independent film and what kind of independent film it is, this will be achieved by examining the film under two main perspectives these being the formal aesthetics of the film and the social, cultural context.
Trying to identify what makes a film independent is an extremely difficult task, to some it’s a financial matter, for film makers from the early 1940’s through to the early 1970’s like Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol “independent” meant opposition to the dominant media on several fronts: technological (amateur 8mm and 16mm instead of professional 35mm formats); institutional (interpersonal and communal versus corporate production); aesthetic (original and avant-garde against the conventional and generic); economic (love of film rather than love of money was the prime motivation); and political (exploring marginal and disenfranchised cultures instead of focusing on the culturally dominant. )i Although film makers in that era would try to follow these un written guidelines the most important one for them and even today was that a film was made out of passion and vision and not for money, as Chuck & Buck was with a budget of $250, 000. Made using a digital camera Chuck & Buck is a dark comedy.
As a comedy genre independent films have a popular approach that is not only seen in Chuck & Buck but also in Todd Solondz’ Happiness, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Todd Louiso’s Love Liza and others. Firstly they manage to make the viewer sympathise with characters that would normally be avoided or who are morally wrong. But on the other hand, using such a child like protagonist is a way in which contemporary Hollywood has similarly used to gain sympathy for their characters in films such as Big and Forest Gump both with Tom Hanks. They gain our sympathy because the audience has the feeling of them not knowing any better than what they are doing.
Independent comedies tend to take heavy subjects such as stalking and arrested development like in Chuck ; Buck or paedophilia as in the film Happiness, this will be focused on in the social cultural section. For me the most distinct aspect of formal aesthetics in this film is the way in which the music is used, primarily the Gwendolyn Sanford song Freedom of the Heart. The song is very representative of Buck, it reminds him of his mother and we see him put it on at his mothers’ funeral and whilst driving in his car, it is his comfort song. It is a very upbeat lively sounding song and is played so often that it feels like another character, in the film it manages to come across as innocently fun, and is annoyingly catchy that one can’t help but sing along to it. But at the same time manages to make the audience feel somewhat uncomfortable.
The impression the song the leaves on the audience mirror the impression left by Buck, although he manages to make us feel uncomfortable, his innocence is at the same time endearing. It is not only the music in the film that allow us to sympathise with Buck, the slow paced use of the shots help us to understand on one hand Buck’s obsession as we see him stare longingly at Chuck which leads us to believe that he is in love with Chuck and always has been. And on the other hand Chuck’s awkward feeling towards Buck as in many shots particularly when Buck turns up at Chuck’s house unannounced and when he goes to see him at his office, the shots of silence between the two of them shot in real time creates an intensely uneasy environment which can be felt by the audience.
The fact that the lengthy pauses are shown make the audience feel for both characters for Bucks persistent trying and for Chuck’s uneasy silence that would of lasted twice the time in his mind. The camera manages to achieve uncomfortable intimacy in some of the most emotionally charged scenesii. The majority of the shots used in this film seem to be there to bring us closer to the audience, the shaky point of view shots which are used when Chuck is jogging, allows the audience to feel what Chuck is going through. While he is jogging he is having flashbacks of his childhood with Buck and the shakiness of the camera not only obviously represents the jogging but also his state of mind, Buck has come into his life and shaken things up in his previously stable world.
We also see a point of view shot being used when we see Buck watching Chuck and his wife through some bushes, as we watch the shaky footage it is clear that we are seeing through Bucks eyes, it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable as we see the pleasure in his face from watching them. The flashbacks that are included in the film are vital to the feel of the film. We see both characters having the same flashbacks, not much happens in them apart from them running around when they were younger but they are intensely back lit and not clearly visible, the strong lighting makes them appear dream like. When they are shown as part of Buck’s flashbacks the blurry image makes us question whether Buck’s stories are true or if they are what they look like a dream. But when we see Chuck having similar flashbacks the vagueness of them represents his memories coming back to him slowly and unclearly.
The warm palette used gives a nostalgic impression and gives the memories a happy feeling. Contemporary Hollywood comedies are much more fast paced not only visually but in dialogue, the comedy is more obvious and visual and sometimes physical. Films such as, Dumb and dumber, Scary Movie and American Pie are all very noticeably funny, but in the indie sector with films such as Chuck ; Buck and more evidently in Happiness the comedy is dark and twisted. Its is rare in this film to see a collection of fast paced shots, but towards the end immediately after Chuck and Buck have slept together we see a montage of shots of Buck throwing away all of the toys that he had decorating his room.
The fast pace reflect his unstableness and his mood, we see him crying and behaving erratically, and can see what a big step this is for him. Although through narrative Independent and Hollywood comedies may be on opposing sides of the spectrum they do have their similarities, they can both be read in terms of opposition between normal routine and the disruptive antics of the comedianiii. Although Buck is not a “comedian” as such in this film it is his character behaves disruptively in his surroundings, he has not grown up and therefore does not know how to act appropriately or maturely. It is through his surroundings and the other characters around him that we notice his level of arrested development, which acts as the comedy.
This is also true of contemporary Hollywood films such as the film Liar Liar starring Jim Carrey, it is due to his relaxed surroundings that his odd extrovert personality stands out and makes us realise the extent of his hyperactivity. The film manages to shock and surprise us without showing any violence or sexual scenes, the majority is just innuendo, letting our imaginations do most of the work, this gives great credit to the filmmaking and script writing, unlike most comedies which have to be physical to get a laugh, this one manages it, although slightly uncomfortably without being slapstick. Initially this film is a comedy but through Buck’s obsession the film can also be seen as a romantic comedy.
From a social aspect the film raises some important issues, the first we see of these are when we see chuck and Buck in Bucks bathroom at the funeral of his mother, after hugging eachother Buck inappropriately reaches down towards Chuck’s groin and we are here introduced to the gay aspect of the film. Buck, hasn’t grown up, when he sees Chuck he assumes that things will be the same from when they last saw each other ten years ago, but Chuck has moved on and rejects Buck. Everything that Buck does that we wouldn’t class as “normal” is revealed to us in an innocent way, we are led to think that Buck’s actions are a result of him not knowing any better. The most revealing part of the film, where the audience is crudely alerted to why Buck is so fixated on Chuck comes when Buck is downstairs alone with Chuck, in the revealing line “Chuck and Buck, suck and fuck.
This immediately opens the audiences’ eyes as to their previous relationship, and explains why Buck is so infatuated with Chuck and why he is so hurt when he is rejected by him but comedy and pain often occur simultaneously, rather than one offering relief from the otheriv A popular approach with independent comedy films is that they concentrate on serious issues and make the comedy around the issue this can be seen in the film Secretary the issues of self mutilation is addressed but the comedy is between the two odd central characters who come across as social outcasts but are completely attracted towards each other. This can most evidently be seen in the film Happiness where among other serious issues we watch a scene where we see the character Bill Maplewood try to drug his eleven year old sons friend, Johnny, in order to rape him.
Nothing about this situation is funny, and normally in another genre of film this wood be a delicate subject but in a comedy it is even more so as the director is trying to make light of the situation which he successfully and uncomfortably for the audience achieves. It is his pursuit of trying to make Johnny eat the food in which he has put the drugs in that make the audience forget where this might be leading but just take amusement in him mission of trying to make him eat. The same can be said for Chuck ; Buck, although the audience can see that Buck is obsessively stalking, it is his attempts that are comical to the audience noticeably when he is trying to get into Chuck’s office and tries to disguise himself with files and sun glasses.
Issues such as the stalking and paedophilia are serious issues, and in contemporary Hollywood they would come under the drama genre, it is an extreme risk of a film to try to make light or create fun around these issues and both Chuck & Buck and Happiness somehow manage to do this and even still leave the audience feeling sorry for them, as if they are the victims. Buck is a man-child who is socially inept, he has been living alone with his mother since he was twelve and hasn’t ever grown up, the character of a man-child is not rare even in Hollywood comedies, if we look at both characters in the film Dumb and Dumber they to come across as anti-social children. Although a similar approach it is easy to see where they differ, the two characters in Dumb and Dumber although childlike they come across as idiotic and stupid, it is a clear slapstick comedy, where as Buck comes across as innocent and naive.
He does not know how to behave like an adult in public; most of us operate within a set of conventions and instincts that lead us through conversations and relationships. We know precisely how close we are to one another, and our behaviour reflects that, Buck does not have this which with some may come across as arrogant or hostile comes across as inoffensive and endearing. Throughout the film Buck seems to represent the child that Chuck still has in him but who he has cast away into some hidden corner he is embarrassed about who he was and what he got up to, but with Buck’s persistence his inner child gives in and by the end they sleep together.
This seems to be Buck’s closure because we immediately see him throwing away all of his toys and photos and genuinely looks like he wants to move on with his life. The social relationship between man and woman is also a vital aspect of the film, particularly the relationship Buck has with women. We know that by living with his mother and looking after her for the past five years he must be close to her, the fact that he is still a child mentally signifies that his mother maybe smothered and spoilt him. As an only child she did not want him to grow up and he had no one else to grow up for, and as he says “he didn’t like the other kids at school” it seems that his mother and his toys were his only companion after Chuck left.
Although we are given this strong impression of closeness between them Buck does not seem phased at his mothers death particularly at the funeral, his childlike nature come across strongly and he does not seem to acknowledge his mothers death. The next woman we see Buck have a relationship with is Beverly who is the manager of the theatre in which Buck puts on his play, they immediately connect with each other, for Buck Beverly is very much a mother figure, he goes to her for help and guidance and Beverly, acknowledges Buck’s childlike nature and takes him under her wing. The only negative male/female relationship in the film is that between Buck and Carlyn, Chuck’s fiance. Buck sees her as an immediate threat because she has whom he wants, he is jealous of her and even goes to the extent of portraying her as a witch in his play.
This film is an example of a contemporary independent comedy; it was made from a vision and not for money, aesthetically we are presented with shots that are rarely found in Hollywood cinema particularly in comedies, the visuals and sound do not give the feeling of a comedy but more of a drama. The long, intense shots used to bring us closer to the character make us feel some of the discomfort that Chuck often feels, and although Hollywood tends to use fast shots and fast lines, by using the opposite Chuck ; Buck has created comedy, that will make audiences laugh uncomfortably. The intensity and insight we get from the characters through the shots and sound, make the audience feel as if they are getting to know the characters, and this is what this film is extremely character driven which is rare for Hollywood comedies.
On the social aspect it is clear to see that this film takes on a distinctive approach to the norm, although dealing with a serious issue of stalking it manages to make light of the situation, because the audience feels like they know Buck, they sympathise with him instead of being scared of him. This common factor of using serious issues is common with independent films, Independent films are far more likely than Hollywood productions to confront us with uncomfortable or prickly central characters and less likely to offer fantastical reconciliatory dynamics in which such characteristics are washed magically away,v because Hollywood can not take the financial risk. But with independent films, even if the film is not a financial success it will always be a personal one.