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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:
Supplements: Arlo Guthrie commentary * Excellent
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 2, 2001