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As most students of 1960s filmmaking are aware, "Alice's Restaurant" was
director Arthur Penn's unsuccessful follow-up to "Bonnie and Clyde." It
based on -- or rather inspired by -- a good idea: Arlo Guthrie's famous
autobiographical song, which told the humorous and ironic tale of two
with the "establishment," as we used to say, during a Thanksgiving in
Stockbridge, Mass., and a subsequent draft board examination in New York
Thirty-three long years later, seeing this cultural artifact from the late '60s is less like watching a story unfold than stepping into a time machine. The good, bad and tragic aspects of that turbulent era are all represented here, and the past -- as observed from our tainted and narcissistic age of SUVs, AIDS and the Internet -- seems positively innocent. And -- with a few obvious exceptions -- idyllic.
The 1960s may have been a tumultuous era, but those years embodied one crucial concept sorely missing from today's society: youthful idealism. Way back when -- before a six-figure salary became the college student's holy grail, when saving the world was more important than earning a law degree -- young people were actually passionate -- about freedom, about peace, about the long- term prospects for humanity. If that passion has not completely vanished, it has certainly been redirected -- and not, in my view, toward a positive or productive end.
Whether Penn's film works or not as a cinematic adaptation of Guthrie's song, whether it successfully mixes deadpan humor (hippies vs. bureaucratic clods) with tragedy (the dark side of drug use) seems almost irrelevant now. The movie succeeds in capturing a remarkable moment in time, a short period when the future may have been uncertain, but there was still a brilliant ray of sunshine at the end of the tunnel -- and a youthful force propelling us toward it.
The hippie movement may have been naive, but it was a movement nonetheless, and a positive form of rebellion. As seen in the film, young people often used the word "peace" instead of "goodbye" -- not just as a pleasant sentiment at the end of a conversation, but as a serious reminder of what was important -- that nothing was more vital than global, harmonious accord, to "live as one." That spirit may have died with John Lennon; it may have left this Earth with Jerry Garcia. In any case, it's pretty much gone now, and already -- except, perhaps, within a few small, nostalgic circles -- nearly forgotten.
Today, the concepts of "peace" and "love" seem hopelessly quaint. The era of Flower Power has long since passed, and most young people would readily agree that All You Need is Cash -- the majority of them knowing infinitely more about money markets than peaceful coexistence. Teenagers who once joined together to enjoy music, freedom and a sense of community (Woodstock) have been replaced by a disenfranchised generation who angrily rape, steal and burn (Woodstock '99). Somewhere along the line, the hopeful enthusiasm of folk music and rock'n'roll gave way to the fury of punk, rap and hip-hop. Freeform artistic expression (Prog-Rock, Pop Art, tie-died clothes, experimental filmmaking) was discarded in favor of nihilism and self-mutilation (Industrial/ Goth-Rock, Heavy Metal, piercings and tattoos). The ray of hope faded. "Make Love, Not War" degenerated into "Show Us Your Tits." The "us" decade ('60s) became the "me" decade ('70s). And now -- God help us -- we are firmly entrenched in what surely would've made the founding fathers wish they'd never been born: the"whatever" century.
This apathetic new millenium has ushered in not a glorious Odyssey of space exploration or a Brave New World of modern medicine -- but terrorism, fear, ignorance and intolerance. Politically, Ashcroft's medical marijuana raids and "President" Bush's environmental atrocities likely cause even die-hard liberals to fondly recall the days of Tricky Dick! Who could have ever imagined?!
And so "Alice's Restaurant" is another tragic arrow through our empty, modern- day heart -- a damning reminder of just how low this country has sunk, how far a nation of bloodless, soulless opportunists has strayed from the garden. Think of it! Once, this country poured its life blood into electing leaders who would end war and famine; now, we waste millions trying to impeach them for receiving blow jobs.
Jim Morrison was 35 years ahead of his time. The '60s -- in retrospect -- was the beginning. And this, now, is the end.
I had all but forgotten about the film of "Alice's Restaurant", which was
inspired by (as opposed to based on) Arlo Guthrie's classic and comic song
of the same name. Viewing it again on DVD made for a curious
Midway through the film, director Arthur Penn (fresh off of "Bonnie and Clyde", I believe) literally shoots the events on which the song is based, and they are if anything even more amusing on screen than on record. However, anyone expecting the film itself to reflect this tone overall is in for a surprise.
By the time Arlo (playing himself) has his litter-inspired run-in with the draft board (which is, again, hilarious) we have come to know him as one of a commune-like group of people in Stockbridge which is more or less centered around Alice and Ray. The two live unconventionally with their friends in an unused Church. Alice seeks to add some stability to her life by opening a restaurant, which she does successfully with the help of friend Arlo's jingle. She and Arlo are the only members of their group who look beyond the aimless lifestyle of the members of their commune, who are content to meander through life riding motorcycles and getting stoned. We see Alice affected by the drug-inspired struggle and death of addict Shelley and Arlo affected by the long illness and eventual death of his father, Woody Guthrie. Perhaps their emotional connections to their lost loved ones are what clue them in to the shallowness of the lives around them. But if Arlo has his music to move on to, Alice is fairly glued to her life with the stoned-out Ray, their friends and her restaurant. It is with great sadness indeed that she watches Arlo ride off to resume his life on the road.
The point made about the trappings of the Hippie lifestyle being so unfulfilling are well ahead of their time when juxtaposed with other movies of the era and are actually quite haunting. The problem is that they make the wonderful recapping of the events surrounding Arlo's writing of the song seem out of place. This shift in tone is never quite reconciled by director Penn, rendering the film more of a curiosity than a success.
In addition to the now-fabled Thanksgiving sequence, highlights include James Broderick's lively performance as Ray, Pat Quinn's understated one as Alice and Guthrie's ever present charm and humor. It is also a wonderful bonus to see Arlo perform his father's "Pastures of Plenty" and "Car Song" with the wonderful Pete Seeger. (That's folk music producer Harold Leventhal as Woody's manager.) The film itself is ultimately as ramshackle as the group whose story it tells, but if the era means anything to you you will find it worth watching.
This excellent film was written by my late screen writing teacher
Venable Herndon, but I saw it and fell in love with it long before I
took his class.
It manages to be both good humored and effortlessly profound at the same time. The recruitment scenes are hysterically funny. I miss movies with this laid-back quality. A lot of people are adverse to this type of loose narrative structure, but since almost every flick and TV show has such a rigid structure why can't the rest of us have a couple of films to ourselves.
The final shot of Alice's Restaurant with all its beautiful ambiguity has affected me more than the final shot of the "Searchers" every time I've seen it. It manages to celebrate something and take it with a grain of salt at the same time. Hurrah for the director of photography!
A beautiful trip all round.
ALICE'S Restaurant (3+ outta 5 stars) Maybe not one of the best movies of the '60s but it is definitely worth checking out... as a sort of time capsule if nothing else. This was an "establishment" movie designed to cash in the popularity of the then-popular folk song by Arlo Guthrie. They got Arlo to star as himself... as well as several of his actual friends and acquaintances of the time... even the actual police officer who arrested him for the incident described in the song. Considering its mercenary intent the movie is a lot better than it has any right to be. This may not be one of director Arthur Penn's best movies but he definitely gets the most out of the concept. Guthrie now says that the movie is more of a version of what the straight world *thought* the hippie movement was all about rather than what it was *actually* about... with that in mind the movie still paints a pretty good picture of the times. Guthrie is a low-key performer but he definitely has some screen charisma... resembling a baby-faced Bob Dylan at times. This could be considered one of the first full-length motion picture music videos.
After seeing all the negative criticism, I just had to say a few words in the films defence. ALICE'S RESTAURANT is unconventionally produced, but it DEFINITELY has themes running through out it.. It deals with some profound issues about the era, particularly the concept of the pursuit of happieness. Note the significant change in tone in the last section: The marriage ceremony and party at the end brilliantly convey the idea of the characters trying to "be free" and have a good time, but that if there is aimlessness in your life, there will be a sadness there and you won't know were it is comming from. True, it also helps if you like folk music (witch I do). I found the scenes of Arlo by his father Woody's bed side quite touching, especially when he is performing with Pete Seagar. And of course, seeing the ALICE'S RESTUARANT MASSECREE acted out is delightful.
I bought this film on dvd, not really knowing why, as I didn't much care for it when I was younger. I saw it in the movies and it failed to capture the fun and humour of the song. Looking at it now, especially towards the end, I see it much differently. Maybe Arthur Penn was trying to capture the end of the Hippie era. Alice looks devastated as she watches her world and perhaps her dreams fall apart. Was all the innocence and freedom false? I think this film was before it's time. Regardless, it is probably the best depiction of a hippie "slice-of-life" ever made.
This movie is generally not highly regarded. Criticisms refer to the
lack of plot or "aimlessness" and draw unfavourable comparisons with
It is hardly ever appropriate to criticise a film by comparing it with the source from which it is derived. The film is a work in its own right, and it is no criticism to say that it is not like something else. There is no reason why a comic song should not be used as the basis for a tragic movie. The only such comparison that has any validity is one which uses the source work as a basis for demonstrating how a weakness in the derived work could have been avoided; or conversely, one which contrasts a virtue in the derived work with a corresponding deficiency in the source work.
On its own terms, "Alice's Restaurant" succeeds very well as a movie. The song on which it is based does no more than provide a sequence of events around which the movie is constructed. It is not a narrative; it is a portrait of a particular time and a particular section of American society. It meanders, but it is never tedious; there is always something interesting to see on the screen. It demonstrates how that section of society, or the representatives of it with whom the film is concerned, although rejecting many of the rules by which American society has historically been governed, nevertheless accepts that society's basic values and cannot avoid the consequences of the rejection of some of the rules. It is not a great movie, but it is a very good one.
I rate it as about 7.5 out of 10. The film that I find most similar to it is the French film "Round Midnight"; not because of its subject-matter, but because of its dreamy, unhurried mood.
Those who write complaining that the movie isn't like the song are missing
the point. The movie isn't about the song, nor is the movie supposed to
based around the song. The movie merely includes the song - and some
in Arlo Guthrie's life in the 1960s. Get over the fixation about the song
and you might begin to see what the movie is about.
Alice's Restaurant is about life and loss, and the traps we allow ourselves to get caught up in. It's about addiction, youth, anarchy, death, and aimlessness. It's a celebration and a lament for all those things.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Arlo Guthrie's hilariously mordant 20 minute story song gets adopted
into an affably whimsical, episodic, occasionally funny and ultimately
quite downbeat and sobering free-form feature by director Arthur Penn
that astutely captures the key issues and concerns of the 60's hippie
counterculture: dodging the draft, smoking grass, getting hassled by
the pigs, being persecuted by grossly intolerant, narrow-minded,
repressive straight conformist squares, trekking all over the country
to find your true self, and defying everyday social conventions so you
can do your own thing, man. The rambling, just barely there plot
centers on the winningly droll, breezy and irreverent Guthrie's
pilgrimage through the counterculture, a bizarre, eventful, eye-opening
journey of self-discovery that reaches its peak when Arlo gets arrested
for illegally dumping trash, thus making Arlo ineligible for wartime
service in the army due to his disreputable status as an
unrehabilitated criminal (the scenes at the army center are riotous,
with M. Emmet Walsh in a gut-busting early role as the gruff Group W
sergeant whose staccato motormouth way of talking renders everything he
Police chief William Obanheim appears as himself and proves to be a hugely likable good sport by allowing himself to be the endearingly humbled recipient of a few right-on japes made about uptight authority figures. "Glen and Randa" 's Shelley Plimpton has a nice cameo as a cute groupie who hits on Arlo at a party. The film's precise, clear-eyed portrait of the painfully gradual disintegration of flower power idealism and the cynicism and disillusionment that followed in its wake nowadays seems all too grimly true and prescient, with the volatile relationship between vulgar, boorish, obnoxious swinger James Broderick and his frustrated, irritated wife Pat Quinn (they play Ray and Alice Brock, the owners of the titular restaurant) brilliantly reflecting the turbulence and capriciousness of the period. Somewhat erratic and uneven, with a shaky tone that uneasily shifts between comedy and drama, this quirky, laid-back, naturalistic historical curiosity piece provides a lyrical and poignant time capsule of the 60's that for all its admitted imperfections nonetheless remains haunting and effective.
I remember back in the 80s my Mom rented this movie and from the cover and
title I didn't think I'd like it. Not only did I like it, but I now watch it
every Thanksgiving season. I've always liked Arlo Guthrie's music and the
soundtrack is excellent, featuring the title track which tells this true
story. It's quite a fun movie, laced with moments of very serious elements
like Woody, Arlo's dad, in the hospital. The scene in the hospital with Arlo
and Pete Seeger singing the Car Car song to Woody in the hospital was very
heartwarming. The characters are all colorful and enjoyable to watch and
very typical of the folk scene in the late 60s, just before I was born.
***1/2 (Out of 4)
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