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DVD Review: Alice’s Restaurant

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Arlo Guthrie’s 18-minute talking blues is a ‘60s counterculture classic that details true events of how a littering ticket he received for throwing away garbage at a dump when it was closed for Thanksgiving caused him to be considered ineligible for the Vietnam draft. It has become a tradition for classic rock stations to still give it a spin every Thanksgiving.

However, the film that was inspired by the song is a mess. Obviously, the song isn’t long enough to make a feature, so the filmmakers created a quasi-biography about Arlo, combined with a melodramatic hippie love triangle. Arlo’s story is very interesting, but the script doesn’t explore it enough. Of course, there was no obvious end to his story yet, but as the son of the dying folksinger Woody Guthrie and as a young man trying to find his way in the world there was good potential for drama, which a good writer could have mined. Instead, according to Arlo on the commentary track, we get an older person’s inaccurate version of hippies, which isn’t compelling.

The melding of fact and fiction by these screenwriters creates a disjointed plot. It’s about an hour before the story of the song gets told, so the film begins with Arlo leaving school because the cops and the straight people constantly harass him. He joins his friends Ray and Alice in Stockbridge, MA. They have recently bought a church to live in that they open up to everyone. Arlo spends his time playing music and visiting his dying father in the hospital. When we finally get to the Thanksgiving dinner, the song plays on the soundtrack. Arlo and a friend get arrested for using the dump when it’s closed. They pay a small fine and with that mark on his record, Arlo avoids the draft.

One of the people Ray and Alice take in is Shelly, a drug addict fresh from rehab, who has an off-screen affair with Alice. The relationship between the three is nebulous because it’s never completely clear what anyone’s feelings are. Alice decides to open up a restaurant. Shelly rides motorcycles and has a heroin problem written by people who have obviously never been close to it or did any research about it.

Then the film takes an odd downturn. Ray busts Shelly regarding his heroin use, which causes Shelly to race off in the middle of the night. The film quickly cuts to Shelly being dead, bypassing whatever conflict and drama his death would have entailed. Arlo misses the death of his father and the funeral of Shelly. Although I’m unsure of their motivations, Ray and Alice get married in a wild, colorful celebration. At the reception, Ray announces that he’s going to sell the church and they can all move to some farm in Vermont. No one has any interest; everyone leaves without explaining why, and the film fizzles out.

There is a commentary track by Arlo, and he talks about the song’s creation and working on the film. He points out the people from his life who make cameos and play parts, such as Alice, who can be seen briefly in a couple of scenes, and Sheriff William Obanhein, who wanted to play himself because he felt, “If anyone is going to make a fool out of me, it might as well be me!” What is lacking on the commentary track is an understanding of the creative choices that were made in the film’s creation.

Alice’s Restaurant comes off like a blatant attempt to cash in on the success of Arlo’s song and the popularity of the counterculture by people outside of it. If the filmmakers are trying to comment on the drugs, free love, and communal way of life, they do a very poor job clarifying the story’s position. The decision by the writers is arbitrary that this lifestyle is bad based on what happens in the film. On the commentary track Arlo says, “It’s a good thing it was just a movie. Things worked out a lot better than that.”

I can understand someone who lived the life enjoying the memories evoked by the film, but I don’t see how anyone else can get through it. Easy Rider, which came out the same year, is a better and more authentic film at every level.

Directed by Arthur Penn
Screenplay by Venable Herndon & Arthur Penn

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://bryanmckay.com/blog Bryan McKay

    It’s awfully sad that Arthur Penn’s career went absolutely nowhere after the breathtaking Bonnie and Clyde.

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark Richard Marcus

    El Bicho, yet another profound reasoning on why I’ve never sat through the thing. I find it interesting that all three people who have reviewed the movie, each from a different perspective, have all come to the same conclusion, that it is a bad movie.

    To me such obvious concensus shouldn’t be ignored, and although the song deserves to be dusted off and played every ten years, perhaps it is time to send this movie to an ignoble rest.

    Thanks El Bicho for your contribuiton to our Arlofest

    Richard

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Thanks for the compliment, Richard. What I found telling from the different articles is the personality of the writers shining through.

    For Al, it seemed to validate his views on the pointlessness and dead end of the hippie lifestyle. I thought the film was telling me that, but it felt forced and didn’t naturally occur from the story. I didn’t see why it all fell apart, just that it did, so it was bad. No lifestyle works for everyone, but Jack Nicholson seems to be doing just fine with his artist’s lifestyle that includes sex and drugs.

    In regards to the drugs, I don’t know what the film was saying. When Shelly ran out after his stash was caught, he went on an extended motorcycle ride. We cut to the hippies collecting his body and I’m guessing Penn was saying he o.d. Considering we saw more of him racing through the streets at night than shooting heroin, a fatal traffic accident would be just as believable from what the film shows us.

    I do agree with Al that the filmmakers were going for something 180 [did keyboards ever have degree symbols?] degrees different than the song, but that begs the question why would they bother doing it under the banner of “Alice” and did Arlo know this when he sold the rights to the song? It would be like Sousa selling “Stars and Stripes” and the movie version being anti-American.

    For Scott, the idealist, he was slightly rattled by reality of the film, of the plot and the film’s failings. Now I don’t know either gentleman except through the occassional article or email, and I’m not intending to be insulting, but I think out of the three of us Scott would have been the most likely to have been a hippie back in the day, although I definitely would have gone to a number of the parties. Being older might have helped the enjoyment of the film; being stoned wouldn’t.

    Thanks for the opportunity, Richard.

  • http://lmcnelly15.blogspot.com Lucas McNelly

    “It’s awfully sad that Arthur Penn’s career went absolutely nowhere after the breathtaking Bonnie and Clyde.”

    except that he was nominated for an Oscar for this film. i don’t get all the hate for this. I expected it to be pretty awful and found instead that it was rather good. a little disjointed, sure, but not bad by any means.

  • http://indemnification.blogspot.com -E

    Congrats! This article has been selected as one of this week’s Editors’ Picks.

  • Scott Butki

    For Scott, the idealist, he was slightly rattled by reality of the film, of the plot and the film’s failings. Now I don’t know either gentleman except through the occassional article or email, and I’m not intending to be insulting, but I think out of the three of us Scott would have been the most likely to have been a hippie back in the day, although I definitely would have gone to a number of the parties.”

    That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me all week.

  • Scott Butki

    This excerpt from the savant review nicely touches on what probably irked
    me about the movie:
    “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. ”