Monday, November 29, 2010

Underrated Movie #98: Alice's Restaurant

Warning! Do NOT clean up after Thanksgiving until youve seen...
Title: Alice’s Restaurant
Year: 1969
Director: Arthur Penn
Writers: Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn, based on a song by Arlo Guthrie
Stars: Arlo Guthrie, Pat Quinn, James Broderick, Geoff Outlaw, Micheal McClanathan, and Officer Obie as himself

The Story: Arlo Guthrie plays himself: bouncing around the country, trying to stay out of the army, getting picked on for his long hair, occasionally visiting his dying father, and eventually coming together with his hippie brethren to form a makeshift commune in a deconsecrated church in Stockbridge, Mass. There we get a complex portrait of the ups and downs of the countercultural life. Happier incidents like the one you may know of as the “Alice’s Restaurant Thanksgiving Massacree” are interwoven with sadder tales of those that don’t survive the journey.

How it Came to be Underrated: Because it was based on a funny song, and the cast mixed actors with amateurs playing themselves, many people falsely assume that this is a mere novelty, rather than the profound and heartbreaking tale of life in the ‘60s that it is. It’s a much stronger portrait of that year than Easy Rider or, god forbid, Zabreski Point.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Americans like to claim that the World War II gang were the “Greatest Generation”, and that’s true, if you consider a bloodbath the greatest thing that our country can accomplish. Of course, it seems more likely to me that an even greater generation were the kids that stopped a war, impeached a crooked president, started the environmental movement, and got more rights for women, blacks, gays and everybody else than anybody thought possible. Call me crazy. This is a warts-and-all portrait of the kids caught up in all those acts of liberation. Like their fathers at Anzio, they’re too busy trying to survive to realize that they’re collectively making a difference.
  2. By 1967, many great directors were waiting in the wings, hoping to finally bring the intellectual and spiritual vitality of the French New Wave over to American movie screens. Penn was an unlikely visionary: his style is scruffy, loose and downbeat, but he turned out to be the one that finally ignited American’s own artistic explosion with Bonnie and Clyde. Nevertheless, he’s rarely mentioned today as one of the great filmmakers of that era, but that’s fine: His movies have more in common with each other than they do with any others. He was a one-of-a-kind weirdo genius.
  3. It’s an odd little sub-genre and they’re usually terrible: the film-as-memoir where a non-actor plays himself, but Arlo actually does a great job. Of course, as with any memoir, there’s always the danger of being a little self-serving… Watching this movie, I realized that every man has one ultimate sexual fantasy: to one day turn down the offer of sex. Arlo turns down quite a few here: too young, too old, too married… You begin to suspect that the man doth protest too much. Maybe these are all the offers that he later wished he’d turned down.
  4. Hearing the song (which I love) you would think that it would never work if Obie was turned into a sympathetic character—his blind antagonism is the whole driving force of the narrative! But your first clue that they’re doing something different here is that Penn got the actual Officer Obie to play himself. Why on earth would he agree to do that? Well, it’s because he’s kind of the hero in this version! He’s a good friend of Alice and he attends the opening of the hippie restaurant with his family –where he even cuts the “Eat Me” cake and serves it! Yes, he does later overreact to the littering, but that actually looks like a pretty crummy crime when you see it onscreen, and so you actually feel for Obie when you see that the judge is literally blind to his evidence! It’s an amazing act of literary transformation: turning a great one-sided ballad into an even greater two-sided movie.
  5. Like Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, the theme here is the slippery relationship between warmth and cold as we grow older. Moments of great joy keep sliding down into sadness. As Arlo asks the last time he sees his father: “Now that they’re finally not after me to do what I don’t wanna do, what do I wanna do?” Or, put another way: “Can you get everything you want at Alice’s Restaurant?” Only an existential storyteller like Penn could find so much meaning in such an innocent question.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Penn made a lot of underrated movies, including 1965’s Mickey One and 1975’s The Missouri Breaks. It’s a fine thing to say of any artist: every movie he made (except for Bonnie and Clyde) is still the subject of broad critical disagreement. Nobody ever knows quite what to make of this guy.

How Available Is It?: It’s available to watch instantly but I reccomend the DVD with a folksy commentary by Arlo himself, where he complains good-naturedly about how Penn managed to make such a sad little movie out of his funny song.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: It Was Their Town!


Anonymous said...

I'd also like to recommend Penn's LITTLE BIG MAN, one of my favorite Westerns, one of Hoffman's best films. And to stand up a little for ZABRISKE POINT--why should god forbid it? When was the last time you've seen it? Are you an Antonioni fan at all? ZP really does capture the era, in an almost anthropological sense and with the cold vision of Antonioni's particular genius. It's messy and sometimes stilted but there are many brilliant scenes like the opening, the gun store scene, the roadside cafe, the real estate office, and the final ecstatic slow-motion consumer apocalypse. The film looks better and more prescient with each year. The two would-be hippies choosing a hollow rebellion as the least bad of all their bad options. Antonioni could see all this objectively and still romanticize it a little, make it beautiful and strange.

Matt Bird said...

Oh sure, I love Little Big Man, and I love a lot of Antonioni movies, and I love the first twenty minutes of ZP, when they're in the city, but I find the endless cavorting in the desert to be unbearable. (and the phrase "Suck Bucks!" just makes me giggle, sorry)

MichaelB said...

Venable was my first dramatic writing prof at NYU.

rams said...

Interesting that Anon says ZP captures an era, since I've always felt that Alice's Restaurant is the only film that shows you what the 60s really looked like (and that's actor/writer/dramatist Vinnette Carrol asking Arlo if he's actually got Huntington's Chorea right this minute ...)

Mike Sutton said...

Great choice! I think this movie has the one of the finest endings I've ever seen. The seemingly endless shot of Pat Quinn standing alone in the doorway is heartbreaking and an eloquent comment on the impending doom of the peace and love era.