|'); document.write(''); //-->|
What did we expect with Alice's Restaurant in 1969? Fun, mostly, as we had all listened to Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" record far too many times. After the game changing Bonnie and Clyde (it reshuffled the deck of influential film critics, for starters) and before his fanciful Little Big Man, director Arthur Penn took a break from big stars. With writer Venable Herndon he fashioned an original script ostensibly about the state of hippiedom in America. To everyone's surprise, Alice's Restaurant told the truth: there were no hippies, only the same kinds of vagabond souls and rat race dropouts that are always trying to form alternative ways of living together. From 1968 to about 1971 screens suffered more than a few clueless comedies and fantasies that chose to link flower power with sexual license and Marxist revolution. Alice's Restaurant relates the mood of the moment to an older, grander tradition of American resistance.
The film also shows a great deal of restraint. 99 out of a hundred movies depicting Woody Guthrie after a certain date would billboard the slogan that adorned his guitar: "This machine kills Fascists." Penn and Herndon don't use slogans, even famous ones. What Alice's Restaurant has to say isn't all that encouraging, but it has integrity to spare.
The show travels with its leading player Arlo Guthrie (Arlo himself) as he visits with his counterculture friends Ray and Alice Brock (James Broderick & Pat Quinn) in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. If the timeline is meant to be literal, the years are 1966 and '67, just as the Vietnam draft is kicking in and just before the death of Arlo's famous father, folk singer and union activist Woody Guthrie. Arlo tries to attend college but gives up after a few incidents of harassment over his long hair, and music faculty insisting on instructing what he should play. He splits his time between playing in New York music clubs (an early song seems in the vein of Bob Dylan) and helping Alice and Ray. The couple has bought a deconsecrated church to establish a sort of roosting place for their various vagabond friends and artists. Alice does most of the work. She opens a lunch counter while Ray competes in motorcycle races and plays the big-hearted greeter to one and all. Arlo writes a radio jingle for the restaurant, but must leave more than once to visit his father Woody, who is dying of Huntington's Disease. Woody can smoke and enjoy music, but he can't talk.
Arlo's famous Thanksgiving littering episode finds its way into the story as well as his draft-board adventure on the Group 'W' Bench. But things are far from perfect. Ray and Alice's relationship has rough patches, and everybody is upset by their failure to help Shelley (Michael McClanathan), a heroin addict. Ray tries tough love and Alice offers affection, but Shelley just can't put himself back together.
Yes, nobody expected a monster downer from Alice's Restaurant but that's exactly what we got. Arlo is the only player who really acts or looks like a hippie. He drives his cute red microbus, wears very long hair and Whole Earth muslin and linen shirts in attractive styles and colors. Not quite as flowery as Donovan, Arlo nevertheless is exactly the kind of guy jerks would get picked on because he looks like a girl. The movie does take pains to show that Arlo likes women. A humorous bit in a crash house shows him declining an offer to sleep with Reenie (Shelley Plimpton), a groupie collecting musical lays. She thinks Arlo 'may be an album.'
The movie has few real jokes outside of the littering-draft board episodes, where the exaggeration is amusing-droll. The Massacree may not be remembered forever as timeless Americana, but it is droll. Most of the rest of the movie plays like the downbeat sections of Bonnie and Clyde, with Ray Brock's improvised mini-commune ("All my friends eat free!") suffering from creeping depression. Ray has the enthusiasm and sense of decency, but neither the couth nor the discipline to establish a real alternative living philosophy. He's always drumming up excitement but half the time it's to get drunk and cheer. Alice gets left behind to do the work that makes everything go. Little progressive or liberated is going on when Ray is promoting a beach trip and giving Alice grief for insisting on keeping the restaurant open, on her own. The new consciousness can come together for meaningful moments like a reaffirming wedding ceremony, but not much else.
What Alice's Restaurant takes pains to say sailed over this viewer's head at age seventeen: an unorganized collection of 1960s artists, draft dodgers, panhandling musicians and suicidal junkies do not a family make. They're the offspring of a previous generation of brave pioneers in the social wilderness, all now wiped out, marginalized or blacklisted out of existence. The great Pete Seeger is still going strong but Woody's hospice bed isn't exactly surrounded by disciples. Arlo gets a job with a former member of the left-wing movement who seems to have survived by hiring folk talent for her coffee club. When she comes on to him, thinking it's her due for helping Arlo's friend pay his rent, nobody's heritage is being flattered. Arlo seems an awfully gentle guy to follow in the footsteps of his honest-John folk firebrand of a father, yet he's a hero with talent who endures by living his beliefs. Alice is the tragic figure. She could have been fully stereotyped as a nurturing Earth mother, but the portrait goes beyond that. Her marriage is open, even though Ray's instincts don't really buy the arrangement.
The playful wedding in what was once a church has all the elements, but they're in the wrong order. It isn't the beginning of a great new life but somewhere near the end. The mother has no children of her own, and the friends, even Arlo, cannot substitute for a family. Alice's Restaurant is a party movie about a party that has outlasted itself. You expect so-called important filmmakers to do insightful work about what's really happening in the world? Arthur Penn didn't sell out.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Alice's Restaurant is a stunning HD scan of Arthur Penn's handsome production, filmed inexpensively in New England and New York. When the snow falls on one of the film's several funeral scenes, Dede Allen paces the footage beautifully, allowing us to feel the cold in the falling snowflakes. The mono audio is strong, with voices of the singers -- Guthrie, Seeger, Tigger Outlaw --given center stage.
The trailer plays up the comedy aspects of the show. Those who have the old MGM DVD should know that it is now a collector's item, as Olive has not carried over Arlo Guthrie's commentary track. It's greatly missed. Everyone knows that 'Officer Obie' was played by William Obanhein, the actual police officer that arrested Arlo on the infamous littering charge. But did you know that Obanhein was nominated for his role as one of the asylum inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? He looks different in the wig. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alice's Restaurant Blu-ray rates:
1. Alice's Restaurant is William Obanhein's only listed film credit. I'm just anticipating April Fool's Day, in honor of the Savant readers that so generously correct my mistakes.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with footnotes, reader input and graphics.