THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
After reading Chris Funderburg's series The Whole History of My Life on this website numerous times, I was inspired to write about the films that I too "really really love." I have a lot of favorite movies. Most of those movies have taught me a lot about cinema. But very few of them have actually touched me on a personal level and made me take a step back and rethink or question things about my life. It's hard to find films that cater to a large, left-handed, architectural-drafting, historically black college-graduating, young black man with diabetes who received a kidney from his uncle. I don't like or relate to most modern films that concern black people. Kidney disease and architecture are seldom explored on the big screen, and there hasn't been an accurate portrayal of a historically black college in over two decades.
But every few years or so I revisit or discover an exceptional film that truly challenges me and forces me to reflect on my own life...
<< part one: THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT >>
<<part two: FEAR X>>
<<part three: SCHOOL DAZE>>
U.S. GO HOME
Captain Brown (Vincent Gallo): I'm offering you my last Coca-Cola.
Alain (Grégoire Colin): No, I'm a communist. I don't drink Coca-Cola.
Years ago there was a game show on IFC called Ultimate Film Fanatic where cinephiles and movie nerds battled each other to see who possessed the most useless movie knowledge. For one of the challenges, each of the contestants was asked to break out their most prized, rare and/or personal movie-related possessions and they were judged - by Richard Roundtree, Jason Mewes and someone else I can't remember [Traci Lords! -- john] on how fanatical these items were. You know, stuff like a movie stub from an important first date, an autograph from a dead, underappreciated character actor or an old VHS tape of some rare movie that no one has ever heard of. Not to sound arrogant, but if I had ever made it on that show I think I would have done pretty well in that category. Not only do I still hold onto significant movie stubs and own a small trash can that once belonged to Martin Scorsese (seriously),* I'm also probably one of the only people who owns a personal copy of Claire Denis' most rarely seen film, U.S. Go Home. Sure the copy I own doesn't have any English subtitles and I don't speak or understand French, but it was given to me directly from Alice Houri, one of the stars of the film, which really means a lot. I know it sounds like I'm bragging, and I am. It's my belief, along with quite a few others, that Claire Denis is one of the best filmmakers working today (opinions may have changed since the release of Bastards, but whatever).** I think it's pretty cool to be one of the few people to own a personal copy of a movie directed by such an amazing filmmaker that will probably never be released due to licensing issues*** (the soundtrack is made up of music by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and other classic rock & roll songs that are probably way too expensive to get the rights to distribute).
My personal copy of this rare film played an important part in a historic moment in my life - my 30th birthday. Because for some reason turning 30 years old is a big deal, I decided to rent out the downstairs theater at Anthology Film Archives in New York City and screen three of my all-time favorite movies for my friends and family: Mystery Train, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and U.S. Go Home. I figured after two movies, the nearly-packed theater would be exhausted so I showed U.S. Go Home last assuming people would use that as their excuse to go home. But to my surprise, just about everyone stayed! I did give a brief synopsis of what the movie's about before it started (which we'll get into later) and the final 20 minutes of the hour-long film is spoken in English, courtesy of American co-star Vincent Gallo, but to this day I'm still amazed that almost everyone I invited stayed to watch it not really knowing what was being said for the most part.
What made my birthday celebration even more special is that while U.S. Go Home was playing, I took picture of it on the screen with my phone, posted it online and the film's co-star Alice Houri eventually made it her facebook profile picture. Sounds corny, I know. But from Alice's perspective she must be beyond flattered. This was the first thing she ever acted in and it's fallen into obscurity over the years, even in her home country of France. It must be nice to see someone show such a keen interest in keeping your early work alive. I'm sure that's why she's been so nice to me over the years. Plus it's my personal experience that French people take a special liking to Americans that love French cinema. "Why do you like French movies so much?", "How did you see Alice's movies all the way over in America?" or "You know Francois Ozon's movies too, yes?!" are the kinds of questions Alice's friends constantly ask me whenever I go to see her while I'm staying in Paris.
Anyone who knows me knows of my love for the cinema of Claire Denis. I think she's amazing and her cinema shows people who share my skin color in non-stereotypical scenarios. I think it's a little ridiculous that I have to turn to a blonde white French lady to see alternative films concerning black people, but I'll take what I can get as long as it's authentic and relatable. However, U.S. Go Home isn't one of those films. I know this is going to sound strange but there's something intriguing about Claire Denis' work that doesn't feature any black people. It confirms that she's also concerned with exploring her own culture and isn't some detached anthropologist of black people, observing them from afar.
If you're a cinephile like me then you're probably aware of her mostly-white casted films like Friday Night, The Intruder or Bastards. But to most American audiences, Denis is known for three films that all have a connection to Africa and/or black people. There's her debut feature, Chocolat; her masterpiece, Beau Travail; and her most accessible film, White Material. All three of those films were shot in Africa (Beau Travail in Djibouti, Chocolat and White Material in Cameroon, respectively) and feature black characters quite prominently. Additionally, Denis' first three films (Chocolat, No Fear No Die and I Can't Sleep) all played on a taboo-ish unspoken sexual tension between black men and white women to a certain extent. Claire Denis was starting to develop a pattern in her work, then U.S. Go Home, technically her fifth film, seemed to come out of nowhere. Besides a quick cameo from Alex Descas in Nénette et Boni, all the major characters in her next two films were white which felt like a breath of fresh air, as twisted as that sounds.
It's tough to talk about U.S. Go Home and not mention Nénette et Boni which, truth be told, is really the ultimate film that represents the whole history of my life. As I said in part two of this series, it was my window into the world of a special group of films and filmmakers that have stayed with me to this day. But I've already covered it on my own site and John did an even better job before me on here. As much as it pains me, there's just nothing left to write about when it comes to Nénette et Boni when you take in to account what's already been written between our two sites.****
But I found a loophole with U.S. Go Home: it's essentially a spiritual prequel to Nénette et Boni. U.S. Go Home was part of a French television series called "Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge..." (All the Boys and Girls of Their Age...) that lasted for a year. For the series, various French directors were tasked to re-tell an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical story from their own childhood in 60 minutes. That's a pretty awesome idea, especially considering the other filmmakers that were involved in the series. Besides Denis, other known or prominent filmmakers that took part were Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné and Chantal Ackerman.***** Why can't American television be that great?
In U.S. Go Home, Grégoire Colin and Alice Houri play brother and sister, just like they did later on in Nénette et Boni, and Vincent Gallo also co-stars as a U.S. military soldier, just as he would in Nénette et Boni. To make the connection even stronger, both sets of parents of the characters played by Colin and Houri are barely seen in either movie, both films heavily feature classic rock & roll music and, most importantly, U.S. Go Home ends with a 14-year-old Alice Houri going off into the woods to have sex for the first time while Nénette et Boni opens with a slightly older, recently pregnant character played by Alice Houri. If that's not a continuous thread between two films then I don't know what is. (The one significant difference is that Nénette et Boni takes place in the 90's while U.S. Go Home takes place in the 60's.)
Like a lot of modern European films concerning teenagers, U.S. Go Home is, to some degree, the story of sexual discovery. In the film, Alice Houri and Jessica Theraud play Martine and Marlene, two best friends, both 14, set on losing their virginity before the night is over at a party for older people. The only problem is that Martine's protective older brother Alain (Grégoire Colin) will be at the same party, making it difficult for the girls to achieve their goal. Through the course of the film our three teenage main characters discover things about each other over a 24-hour period that change their lives forever.
At first glance, this comes off like any other French coming of age film that's directly influenced by The 400 Blows. But when you break down the film's basic plot, it doesn't sound all that different from a John Hughes high school movie where a group of inexperienced teens set out on a quest to lose their virginity but wacky things just keep getting in the way. But the sexually curious teens in Denis' film are cute young girls instead of the typical goofy horny young boys that we often see in movies about sex concerning teens. Denis shatters that stereotype with Martine and Marline. One of the many reasons it's a shame that U.S. Go Home is so obscure and unseen is because it's one of Claire's few films to feature an outright strong female character. When I think about what makes Alice Houri so great, I think of her performance in this. Martine is brave and precocious.
These are qualities you don't often find in many of Denis' female characters which is something I hadn't even realized until John Cribbs pointed it out to me after he saw Chiara Mastroianni's performance in Bastards. Cribbs seriously messed my head up because I thought I had Denis pegged down and completely understood. How did I miss something so big in her work? But this gave me something new to explore in the world of Claire Denis in a time when I was starting to run out of stuff to think and/or write about when it came to her work. I wouldn't have put this together had John not pointed it out, but the women in many of Denis' films are rather indecisive, difficult to read (bordering on blankness) or complicated emotional wrecks. Naturally there are exceptions like Katerina Golubeva in I Can't Sleep or Beatrice Dalle in Trouble Every Day, but generally speaking Denis' handling of female characters is rather peculiar. In No Fear No Die, Solveig Dommartin plays the wife of a smalltime crook/gangster who sends mixed flirty signals to Alex Descas' character knowing they'll never be together. One could say her character comes off more like an object of desire instead of an actual person. In Nénette et Boni, Houri plays an almost emotionless pregnant teen who shows little concern about who the father is and even less about her forthcoming baby (she even smokes while knowing she's pregnant). Tricia Vessey's role as Vincent Gallo's wife in Trouble Every Day might be one of the most timid and weak female characters Denis has ever created, and although there's not much dialogue at all in The Intruder, the female characters hardly say anything in the 2+ hour film.
CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE
* Scorsese isn't one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, but he is responsible for Taxi Driver which is one of my all-time favorite films.
** For what it's worth, BFI named Claire Denis filmmaker of the decade last year. [So did I, but nobody cared. -- john]
*** Although it's recently been uploaded on YouTube, U.S. Go Home will still probably remain one of the rarest modern films in existence. I take comfort knowing I'm one of the few "regular"/non-industry people in the world to own a personal copy.
**** Nénette et Boni co-star Alice Houri still finds it strange that anyone could love that film as much as I do or find so much to say about it given that it was relatively ignored upon its initial release in France.
***** I know Chantal Ackerman is Belgian, but she still participated nonetheless.
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