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Alice's Restaurant

Alice's Restaurant
MGM Home Entertainment
1969 / Color / 1:85 / letterboxed, flat
Starring Arlo Guthrie, Pat Quinn, James Broderick, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Geoff Outlaw, Tina Chen, Shelly Plimpton, M. Emmett Walsh,
Cinematography Michael Nebbia
Production Designer Warren Clymer
Film Editor Dede Allen
Original Music Arlo Guthrie, Garry Sherman
Writing credits Venable Herndon, Arthur Penn, from the song 'Alice's Restaurant Massacree" by Arlo Guthrie
Produced by Hilliard Elkins, Harold Leventhal, Joseph Manduke
Directed by Arthur Penn

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Rebuttal letter by 'Woggly' (B.Baker) at bottom of page..

Alice's Restaurant is a casual, laid-back memento of the Woodstock year, an attempt by Bonnie & Clyde director Arthur Penn to explore youth culture and anti-war sentiment through the gentle folk singer Arlo Guthrie.  Not so much an organized story, than a relaxed meander through a series of vignettes suggested by the equally meandering song, "Alice's Restaurant Masacree",  the film tries to pull its meaning from the tenor of its time, as contrasted with Guthrie's liberal folk music background.  You can tell that MGM couldn't make heads or tails of the movie: they've placed this mainstream movie in an 'Avant-Garde Cinema' branded line.


Drifting from one town to another, to gigs at college campuses and hobo jungles, Arlo Guthrie (Arlo Guthrie) is a vagabond folk singer carrying on in the tradition of his famous father Woody, who Arlo visits on his deathbed in a shabby hospital.  Shunned by straights and harassed by lawmen everywhere, Arlo hooks up with his friends Alice and Ray Brock, who have a dream of starring a free-thinking commune in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Arlo narrowly avoids the draft in one bizarre episode, but a series of disappointments, failed relationships and general malaise causes the commune to fall apart.

Because Folk Music is a personal-connection, live experience far removed from cinema, movies grounded in Folk Music tend to be on the fuzzy side.  Hearing Lee Hays sing about a sunset, for instance, would become trite if you simply filmed him singing, and cut in a shot of a sunset.  The whole point is that you have the smiling, warm Hays singing to you, not the sunset itself.  Bound for Glory, a biographical meditation on Arlo Guthrie's famous father, Woody, provided an excuse for Hal Ashby to run a replay of The Grapes of Wrath.  Joe Hill may have been a true story, but its tale of a semi-legendary labor activist was an even darker downer that couldn't find an audience.  Alice's Restaurant touches on just about everything counter-culture in 1968-'69, but can't really get a handle on any of it.  The hippy-dippy '60s, as anyone who lived through them knows, was a phenomenon that existed for one summer in San Francisco, way late in the decade, and was immediately dissipated by commercialism and media distortion. We wore the clothes, but few of us changed our lifestyles in any real sense.  The movement died a-borning, as an Arlo-ish song version might say.  Arlo and his pals are disaffected and alienated from the Vietnam War, from the 'great society', but not really to any great result in the film.  The actual part of the movie centering around the song is a rather affected celebration of being powerless but hip in the face of the law and the draft.  Its appeal is limited now because even tots know that mass dumping of litter is not cool.  Onto this framework is tacked the tale of the wandering Arlo and his encounters with evangelists, drippy-nosed groupies (Shelley Plimpton) and an attempt to found an arts and crafts commune in a Massachusetts church.

The film is excellently put together, especially by editor Dede Allen, who pries meaning from many uncommunicative situations, such as the rocky relationship between Alice (an earthy Pat Quinn) and her husband (James Broderick).  Although Arthur Penn's loose style tries to just step back and let the 'youth magic' happen,  most of the events seem forced and symbolic - the line of army trucks passing Arlo's VW microbus;  the clergy handing over the church keys to the hippies, as if an outdated religion was being supplanted by some new free order.  Arlo is also given an Asian girlfriend, thus making a statement about interracial romance.  Marijuana use is taken for granted, which was enough to earn youth approval for any movie in 1969.  The ending is a peculiar mystery: a really amazing tracking shot of Alice standing alone, that oozes art-film 'meaning' (hey, maybe the Avant-Garde tag is correct after all) even when we haven't a clue what it all means.

Tiny and totally unprepossessing, Arlo Guthrie is a pleasant, if slightly goofy hero for this Odyssey.  Pat Quinn is the star, the earth mother who makes things happen.  If the movie teaches anything, it's that the bliss of commune life is a sham.  Alice earns the money for the church through hard work in a cafe, and her free-spirit boyfriend preaches freedom and love but still wants to dominate and manipulate her like a macho boss-man.  Even Arlo's music, the source of the movie, was originally a commercial promo, an advertisement - like, part of the system, dude.  The death of the 4-day Woodstock Generation can be seen in the fact that months after the movie came out, an 'Alice's Restaurant' chain of upscale cafes were inaugurated.  A long-haired, no-clue Savant shuffled cars in a Westwood parking lot outside one of them in 1971.

MGM Home Entertainment's DVD of Alice's Restaurant offers only a so-so quality non - 16:9 enhanced letterboxed transfer.  The film isn't in the best of shape.  It's billed as a never-before-seen R rated version, but Savant couldn't tell you the new nasty bits, as it looked the same as when he saw it when new, and I believe, R-rated.  The added material can't amount to much.

However, watching this DVD has a benefit never before available, the ability to hear Arlo's personal running account of the making of the movie on the Greg Carson - produced commentary track, which is entertaining and illuminating.  Guthrie remembers most of the scenes and has funny remarks to make about many of them, especially the scene with Shelly Plimpton, where he declines an offer to 'make it' because he wants to avoid catching her cold.  The 'sensitive male' image caused a big upswing in women hitting on him.  When actor Geoff Outlaw shows up onscreen, Arlo identifies him as a lifelong friend since boyhood, and we warm up to them both ... in a way, Arlo's commentary puts the personal artist- to- audience connection back into the sometimes uninvolving movie.  Arlo certainly hasn't any deep insights, nor any more clues as to what it's all about, but his personal take on his costars, director Penn, and the odd situation of finding himself in a big Hollywood movie, are very involving.  MGM is to be congratulated on giving this non-blockbuster title this special attention; (Editorial) their library is packed with titles that may not sell a million DVD units, but could yield up a sizeable and loyal following if just given the chance.  Also included is a theatrical trailer that plays up the song and the comedy aspects of the show.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Alice's Restaurant rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: Arlo Guthrie commentary * Excellent
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 2, 2001

A Really Good Letter Response from Woggly

- B. Baker, that is, someone who KNOWS something about Arthur Penn and Alice's Restaurant:

Dear Glenn:  Although Alice's Restaurant remains one of my favorite movies, I am a middle-aged adult who has at least tried to behave in a mature manner most of my life.  As I have enormous respect -- more than you know -- for you and your acumen, sensitivity and knowledge, I will resist the powerful temptation to send you an e-message consisting entirely of the words:


No, I won't do that, although my impulse to do so is oddly pure and without malice.  It's good to learn that one can still care so deeply about a work that one can not bear to see it attacked in any way.  Imagine how I'd react if you hadn't rated it as "Good"...

After watching the disc a few times, I must say that it looks pretty good -- at least it looks like it did in 1969; it'll never look like, say, Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall shot it, it is what it is.  I remain crushed that Arthur Penn did not do commentary for the film.  Penn directed some of the movies that have most influenced me -- Mickey One, Bonnie & Clyde, Night Moves and this one -- and I wish that someone would sit the guy down, now that he's ankled Law & Order, and do a few commentaries.

I don't know when the Fox license runs out on Little Big Man -- and I don't know when Viacom will realize that they own the thing -- but someone could do an impressive disc on this flawed but fascinating epic, particularly as trims from the movie are said to still exist in NY somewhere [the film was reportedly cut when CBS and National General decided to cancel the film's planned roadshow] and at least one splendid documentary about Penn and his career was made around the time of the picture's production.

But the Penn commentary I really want to hear would be one for Alice.  I would love to hear his thinking on it. It has long been customary for a filmmaker to be able to follow his first gigantic hit with a "go ahead -- do what you want" project.  Heaven's Gate aside, this remains true to this day.  I still recall being fascinated that on the heels of Bonnie, Penn -- who, though he had worked with Martin & Lewis in TV and had directed Nichols & May's Broadway show had never made a film comedy -- chose to develop Alice*.  Later, of course, when the picture came out, it was clear that it wasn't a comedy.

Penn is essentially a director -- through almost all of his career, he has, I think, taken existing screenplays, developed them, made movies.  There are a few exceptions: Penn and producer Stuart Millar apparently acquired and developed Thomas Berger's novel Little Big Man, bringing Calder Willingham in to write the screenplay;  Penn worked with a number of writers to turn Tom Wicker's non-fiction book about Attica,  A Time To Die into an unproduced script [the book was later adapted for television by others], and contributed a short documentary to the Wolper 1972 Olympics feature, Visions of Eight [though not the one he had hoped to contribute].

Alice, however, is an almost whole-cloth original;  Penn collaborated with Venable Herndon on a screenplay that had only a few orientation points:  it HAD to include the narrative material from the song [UA actually didn't contractually insist, but this was a clear mandate] and whatever they wrote or constructed was going to be largely shot in and around Stockbridge and in some cases involve the actual participants, principally Arlo Guthrie.  Arlo trusted Penn, and Penn and Herndon had a lot of freedom to work in the themes and ideas they wanted to explore.  [I don't really mind most of the things you wrote about the picture, but to call this little East Coast UA production, a relatively inexpensive film# shot mostly in existing locations, a "Big Hollywood movie," makes it sound like Good News or Armageddon.]  Their biggest and bravest idea was to write a movie with no real plot, just a beginning and ending;  the narrative focusing on the adventures of Arlo interwoven with the rise and fall of the dreams of Ray and poor Alice.

In your article, you note, "Alice's Restaruant touches on just about everything counter-culture in 1968-'69, but can't really get a handle on any of it."

Well... yeah.  That's right.  Nobody could.  That's the point, here.

Ray and Alice believe that things have really changed -- that their plans, backed by pipedreams and a naive faith in the gossamer new culture, will work out.  It was more than a little disturbing to some at the time to see Penn's film say in a clear-eyed, if sympathetic way: no, not much has changed -- and people are still people, and the world is a pretty cold place.

Ask the mourners at Shelley's funeral.

Ask Alice, after the wedding.

All best, always. -- wogggly [B. Baker]

---- 'B.'s footnotes:

*The deal with CBS/Cinema Center for LITTLE BIG MAN was already in place -- and in development -- when Penn and Hilliard Elkins made the ALICE deal with UA.

#Other Autumn 1969 United Artists attractions included BATTLE OF BRITAIN, THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, THE HAPPY ENDING, GAILY, GAILY, which UA had almost no idea what to do with, had an Oscar qualifying run and, though hardly a gigantic production like most of these other films, the fairly costly MIDNIGHT COWBOY.  All of these are said to be more expensive than ALICE...

---- P.S.

Savant may well have been exploited in Westwood, but as far as I have managed to learn, neither Alice Brock nor UA received royalties from the California restaurants;  Alice did write an "Alice's Restaurant Cookbook" for Random House in '69; it came with a tiny plastic-embossed record with musical greetings from Arlo and Alice.  And, I must tell you the idea that the "Alice's Restaurant" tune was initially written to promote Alice's cafe is charming;  a little gift to his friends.  If it had truly been "part of the _system_, dude," Ray and Alice would had Arlo in court for years over the profits from the later success of his somewhat augmented and annotated version of the song...

And, just to toss in one totally unimportant bit of trivia (and I don't think Arlo mentions this in the commentary), Arlo's pal Ray Brock was cast in a tiny part in Aram Avakian's wild, not totally successful but chilling screen adaptation of Barth's THE END OF THE ROAD. [Film title: END OF THE ROAD.] I can still recall the Allied Artists display ad... "Starring Stacy Keach, Harris Yulin, Dorothy Tristan and James Earl Jones. With Grayson Hall and The Real Ray Brock."

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