A Kiss After Supper
Uncle Buck

a Kiss after Supper traces the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...

Early in John Hughes’s Uncle Buck, six-year old Maizy Russell (Gaby Hoffman) asks, “I don’t know why we need boys at all. They’re so loud!” Her fifteen-year old sister Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) replies, “We need boys so they can grow up, get married, and turn into shadows.” There’s nothing quieter than a shadow, after all.

Tia is both right and wrong. Her uncle Buck (John Candy), who cares for the children while their parents are away dealing with a family crisis, is a grown-up, but not married. And not a shadow. And Christ, is he loud. With his roaring old beater of a car and his braying voice, he is a disturbing force in the forceful stillness of Northern suburbs, his very presence causing the neighborhood dogs to howl.

John Hughes, in his earlier teen-oriented films (several of which have been covered in AKAS) showed a real genius for integrating pop music into his narratives. Watching Uncle Buck, though, it’s remarkable to note how much of its power comes from silence, and the responses to it.

At the outset, the Russell home is quiet—oppressively so. Except for a brief piano-and-synthesizer theme as the credits roll, the opening scenes unfold with no underscore at all. The tension between parents and children plays out in icy silences and awkward pauses. Tia’s silences, in particular, are aggressive. In a Hughes movie, you can always tell a character’s musical tastes by the way his or her bedroom is decorated. But Tia’s room lacks any musical cues at all. Instead, she has pictures of literary figures on her walls—George Sand, Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde.

This is the domain of Bob Russell—or more properly of his wife Cindy, since Bob’s transformation into a shadow is nearly complete. Bob is a sad, impotent figure, unable to connect with his children or even to comfort his wife in her time of need. Everything about him, from his hesitant speech to his defeated body language, seems apologetic. But he’s able to assert himself, just once, in calling on his estranged brother Buck—over Cindy’s objections.

Buck’s world, conversely, is pervaded by ambient city noise and music—indeed, a poster of Chicago blues legend Lonnie Brooks is prominently displayed in Buck’s bachelor apartment. His presence is invariably announced by the squall of a baritone saxophone, in an orchestration gambit as shameless as anything in Peter and the Wolf.

Uncle Buck’s presence literally brings music to the Russell home. His first action after Bob and Cindy’s departure is to go to the grand piano—unplayed, up to that point—and pick out the theme to “The Twilight Zone.” The next morning he greets the children with a hearty breakfast and LaVern Baker’s exuberant “Tweedlee-Dee,” even imitating a radio DJ with a wooden spoon for his microphone.

Buck’s girlfriend Chanice (Amy Madigan) pegs him as “a very charming man who wants to remain a boy forever,” but that’s not quite right. Buck’s no boy (as a hilarious scene in an elementary school bathroom demonstrates), but he does present a model of masculinity that challenges Tia’s formulation. He stands outside the structures of marriage and domesticity, but for Maizy and eight-year old Miles (Macaulay Culkin in his first major role), he quickly becomes a beloved figure. Tough enough to be compassionate, protective but not controlling, Uncle Buck respects the children’s competencies. He connects with the kids by giving them jobs, inviting them into his problems, by making them feel needed and wanted.

In a way, Uncle Buck is a film that asks the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” Buck is an as-yet incomplete figure, but he is nonetheless the healthiest masculine presence on display in the film. He is master of his own life, unlike his dickless brother Bob, and is in touch with his appetites—all of them. If Buck has destructive flaws, they are largely self-destructive; he’s a sexual being, but stands in sharp contrast to predators like the bowling-alley lowlife Pal, or Tia’s would-be date-rapist Bug (Jay Underwood).

As the near-homophonic names indicate, Bug is a twisted reflection of Buck. He expresses a poisonous parody of Buck’s masculinity, leveraged on displays of power as pathetic as they are disturbing. Uncle Buck is no stranger to violence, of course—witness his beatdown of the malevolent clown Pooter (Mike Starr)—but resorts to ugliness only as an extension of his role as protector; Bug, on the other hand, is an egotistical monster, using force to express his dominance. When he’s not pressuring girls into sex or outright assaulting them, he’s threatening to kick someone’s ass—or worse, to sue them.

It’s a sign of the film’s curious racial politics that Buck’s healthy masculinity is signified by African-American musical idioms—R&B, jump blues. (Actual black people, of course, are invisible in the film, as in most of Hughes’s work.) Bug, however, has as his leitmotif the music of Flesh For Lulu, who are both English and Goth and thus triply white. Bug’s warped sexuality finds a parallel in the prototypical desperate housewife Marcy Dhalgren-Frost (Laurie Metcalf), whose funny/sad attempt to seduce Buck is set to the lily-white tones of the Buckinghams’ “Laugh Laugh.”

It’s significant, too, that although all things good and healthy are signified by African-American musical idioms, the artists themselves are largely white (Ray Anthony, Perry Como). The film does use a pair of hip-hop tracks, a first for Hughes; but the cuts—Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing,” and “Bust a Move” by Young MC—are both big crossover hits, emphasizing both the characters’ distance from, and fascination with, African-American culture and the male values it represents.

Masculine and feminine are reconciled in the end, with the emotional atonement between Tia and Cindy. The melancholy piano and synth of the film’s opening explodes into the pop ballad “Rhythm of Life,” by Hugh Harris—a black artist, but singing in a high, feminized voice, suggesting that the ideal mother-daughter relationship must be based on the black (read “masculine”) attributes of frankness and fearlessness that Tia has learned from Uncle Buck, tempered with feminine values of compassion and tenderness. Buck, in turn, having integrated the feminine virtues learned during his stint as a surrogate parent into his masculine identity, is ready to leave his curious quasi-boyhood behind and become a man—a complete man. He will get married, he will be a father. But he will not become a shadow, and his music will not be silenced.

By: Jack Feerick
Published on: 2007-03-01
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