Review of Miguel Arteta’s Duck Butter
Duck Butter (2018). 93 minutes. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Written by Miguel Arteta and Alia Shawkat. Featuring Alia Shawkat, Laia Costa.
Queer Revelation in Miguel Arteta’s Duck Butter
In 1976, experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer documented her relationship with Max Almy in a film called Superdyke Meets Madame X. Archiving the promising start of a relationship through its tumultuous breakup, Superdyke portrays lesbian love in its complicated entirety, charting laughter, deep understanding, sex, argument, and collapse all on glitchy 3:4 ratio videotape. Like much of Hammer’s oeuvre, including her better known film Dyketactics, Superdyke reveals a lesbian utopia: the joy and pain of queer love that begins and ends on its own terms. Transcendent, imperfect, and gratifyingly true lesbian intimacy can be found again in an overlooked new film called Duck Butter, which can be seen as a fictional successor to Superdyke. Directed by Miguel Arteta (Beatriz at Dinner), Duck Butter was co-written by Arteta and Alia Shawkat, who also stars. Shawkat plays Naima, a quick-witted aspiring actress who meets Sergio, a mystic, free-spirited, and assured Spanish singer (Laia Costa) at a lesbian bar. Drunk on mutual infatuation and their instant chemistry, the two prophesize having sex once an hour for 24 hours, in hopes of condensing an entire serious relationship into a single day. Naima at first hesitates but then agrees, and the experiment that follows is not unlike Barbara and Max’s from nearly 40 years earlier. Intimacy builds, reconstructs, and shatters at its own volition—a film experience that is painfully rare given onscreen queerness’ continued ties to trauma and prejudice.
Interestingly, Duck Butter opens on the set of a film that falls for tropes of LGBT victimhood. Before her engagements with Sergio, Naima is cast on a Duplass brothers film (the Duplasses produced Duck Butter and play themselves), where she’s being directed to console a character (Kumail Nanjiani, also playing himself) who is hysterically crying as he reconciles his possible attraction to men. The scene of gay indie satire evokes a melancholic pattern deeply endemic to queer cinema history and one that lives on in the contemporary crop. Consider the two other lesbian films that headlined Tribeca Film Festival 2018 alongside Duck Butter: in Disobedience, hasidic women in love repress their desire due to religious taboo; and in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a teenager severely self-harms after undergoing gay conversion therapy. If you trust the movies, perhaps Nanjiani’s character has reason to cry. Still, so often LGBT characters are doomed: homosexuality is secret, tragic, or impermanent by necessity.
Apart from its meta beginning, queer identity itself does not spur tears or grief in Duck Butter, which takes shape after Naima has been ousted from the Duplass set. The rejection brings her back to Sergio, looking for distraction and ready to give the 24-hour hypothetical a real shot. And so they begin. They imbibe half naked sitting on kitchen counters; they sing and seduce; they analyze failed relationships; they scream of their love to the moon. And they have a lot of sex. It changes every hour: first it’s impassioned and kinetic, then soft and slow, then tangled and experimental. What culminates is suspended reality—a lustful lesbian liberation.
Until it isn’t. As the binge progresses, mayhem ensues and the film takes on an elliptic, hallucinogenic quality. The scenes, some shot on handycam, have odd cuts as conversations turn bizarre and tense. A heavy-eyed Sergio shrieks at a broken hairbrush; Naima bursts into tears before hiding in the bathroom, desperate for a moment of respite. And when Sergio’s adored mother Susanna comes for breakfast, referencing a potentially sexually abusive past while slipping into unsubtitled Catalan, the film enters into darker psycho-surrealism. Doors are slammed; communication gets lost; a dog goes missing. With real selves revealed, empathy and claustrophobia converge and the dynamic spirals into an insurmountable hell.
The film’s title references a certain sticky bodily fluid discussed candidly in a conversation about prior sexual experiences gone wrong, but also speaks to the owned messiness of Duck Butter’s whole, its embrace of all that is unseemly and vulnerable about intimacy. In an epitomized meeting of form and content, much of the film was shot in 24 hours. The strains in the production make Shawkat and Costa’s impressive acting teeter on performance art, woven together by improvisation born of real sleep-deprived delirium. The ad lib endurance performances and Arteta’s decision to be absent from the filming of sex scenes (some of the most varied and symbolic work in the film) presents questions about the film’s true creative authorship (Shawkat has a writer credit, Costa doesn’t), not to mention the inevitable debate surrounding who should author this story. Even still, the outcome is structurally radical and compelling, a dizzying whirl that can be likened to what Barbara Hammer calls abstract cinema, described in her 1993 essay The Politics of Abstraction. Hammer writes, “In letting the abstractions of light and texture, image and voice swirl around you and carry you into a filmic experience, you become aware of what you are experiencing. The active audience members don’t lose a sense of themselves while engaging in the physical sensations of abstract cinema, but feel more the possibility of being.”
In a time where normalizing and flattening LGBT stories is seen as a cure for homophobia amongst viewers (think blockbuster Love, Simon), Duck Butter is a needed celebration of gay oddity—its mania, madness, and contradiction. Echoing Hammer’s thought, sensory and emotional chaos can convey a universal sense of being. And yet, Duck Butter simultaneously achieves the opposite, reminding us of what is beautifully, uniquely queer about being queer in the first place.
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 Hammer, Barbara. “The Politics of Abstraction.” Queer Looks: Perspectives on lesbian and gay film and video. e.d. Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar, and John Greyson. Routledge, 1993, pp. 70-75.return