Alice’s Restaurant

(Arthur Penn, USA, 1969)


Alice’s Restaurant is a fascinating artefact of the late 1960s; let’s sidestep any fruitless (and bottomless) debate as to whether it represents an authentic glimpse into aspects of the American counterculture (à la Douglas Kramer & Robert Kramer’s epic Milestones, 1975), or one of Hollywood’s fumbling, desperate attempts, alongside Easy Rider released only one month earlier in ’69, to appropriate that culture for the mainstream. Purely from the film itself, we can sense and see that Arthur Penn’s investment in the project (he’s the credited co-writer with Venable Herndon, died 1999) is intense and sincere. Like Four Friends (aka Georgia, 1981), which goes back over some of the same ground, it’s touched with a profound, unsettling melancholia.


First things first, however: Alice’s Restaurant is one of the few films in cinema history based, narratively, on a long song: Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 folk-comedy-rap-talking-blues cult hit “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (thanks to my eldest brother’s taste in vinyl, it filled some aural space in my childhood). Parts of that song appear on the soundtrack, and are duly enacted: garbage disposal incident, draft dodging, freeform wedding. In fact, in a pleasingly Old Hollywood bit of artifice/condensation/metamorphosis, the song start within the diegesis as a radio ad for the restaurant … and then gets to narrate (bits of) the unfolding plot!


Robin Wood, author of a book on Penn, judged (in his early ‘70s entry on the director for Cinema: A Critical Dictionary) that these segments “rupture the tone and constitute a serious flaw”. But I don’t believe it was some “commercial imperative” ingredient imposed on the director; for better or worse, it’s part of the film’s mood-mosaic, and an integral part of its very premise. Penn has always been, from the first, a director of tone-switching and dramatic-comic collage. The switches (edited by a true master, Dede Allen) just happen to be pretty extreme, in this case. And maybe the song’s big gag about “father-rapers”, set against a portrait-shot of an unclothed, effeminate criminal, plays a little queasily today, or any day …


Arlo Guthrie, it must be said, is a weirdly compelling presence in the film. (Wood rates his personality, as displayed on screen, “slight”.) This, in part, has to do with the upfront use of his song: the confident way he speaks in it, the type of rapid language and surrealist wit, even the particular kind of music, bears almost no relation to the soft-spoken, even withdrawn character we observe for the rest of the story, either when he talks or when he sings (even his live “I wanna ball you, baby” ballad is pretty pale). As a non-actor, he’s a bit like another, contemporaneous singer, James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Arlo comes on as a “Dylanesque” figure with his tentative parade of shy glances, slumped postures, affectless walks, weak gestures and verbal reticence; but this should probably remind us, today, of how much the early Dylan persona was indeed modelled on Arlo’s mythic Dad, Woody Guthrie. (Indeed, Dylan’s first volume of Chronicles – will there ever be another volume? – relates visits to Woody that resonate with scenes of this film.)


The Woody factor itself undergoes some puzzling semi-to-non-integration. The film can occasion some cognitive dissonance in the spectator on this level, perhaps more so today than in August ’69, when Arlo G. had yet to reach his peak of post-Woodstock fame. Early on, in an excellent scene where our young hero wanders up to and looks in on a preacher’s tent in session (rather like many passages of Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, 1997) and ends up saying to himself ,“Seems like Woody’s road mighta run through here sometime”, you have to pinch and remind yourself: oh right, that’s Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody Guthrie!


Subsequently, an actor (Joseph Boley) plays Woody in hospital during his long, slow process of passing away (in reality, he died in 1967), already beyond speech, and smoking cigarettes with assistance from wife (Marjorie played by Sylvia Davis) and son. Pete Seeger shows up in a special guest cameo at the bedside, too, to sing a few jolly tunes (including the zany number for kids, “Riding In My Car”). But almost nothing is made of Woody’s “celebrity” until a scene near the very end – and only one other character, hailing from his era, talks about him admiringly as any kind of legend. Other than these few moments, nobody in the fiction really addresses Arlo at all as Woody Guthrie’s son.


As sometimes happens in films about popular music (such as Purple Rain, 1984), the exact career-status of the central character is left to float: Arlo mostly seems like a relative nobody travelling around and gigging solo at a few homely bars, but a young groupie wants to “make it” with him because he’s bound for the glory of “a record album”. In the film’s finale, a music career seems like the last thing he’s heading toward as he goes down the road with his new partner, Mari-chan (Tina Chen).


So much for the “tonal” discrepancies (tonal problems has become one of the most wretched terms of abuse in the contemporary film-reviewing lexicon – as if monotone was the preferred pitch of all things!). What is Alice’s Restaurant really about? More than a simple (even naïve) inquiry into a specific slice of the counter-culture – not much militant politics here, more the “dropping out”, passively resisting and wandering-around-old-weird-America side of the ‘60s ethos – it’s a film of transmissions. Between generations, between cultures. This theme is inscribed (as Pascal Kané would say) doubly: in the father-son Guthrie relation, and especially in the passage of the central church location from sacred to “desacralised” (the scene of the final mass held for a dwindling handful of old folk is indelible – and true to my own adolescent memories of Catholic churches in the Australian ‘70s!).


In neither case is it a matter of outright rebellion or rejection (beyond the clever scene of a stuffy, repressive, music class with all students playing silently through headphones and an obstreperous teacher flicking between channels). The modern folk-rock-blues of Arlo aims to revivify his Dad’s legacy, just as the “new church” of the hippies aims to revivify the beauty and sacredness of existence itself – an emphasis made clear via the hip priest (Lee Hays, another folkie figure) officiating at the wedding of Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick). As Jean-Pierre Coursodon (1935-2020) & Bertrand Tavernier (1941-2021) noted in their long entry on Penn in 50 Years of American Cinema, his bands of outsiders tend to express a “nostalgia for family” as a refuge against the world’s chaos, a desire to reformulate or replace the family unit rather than destroy it altogether. Even those in Alice’s Restaurant whom Wood identifies as “authority figures” – Woody and the local cop Officer Obie from the song (played by Obie/William Obanhein himself who decided, if he was to be made out as a fool, he might as well do it himself rather than hand the job to somebody else) – are not really invested with much grey eminence; they are flickering, diminished, whimsical presences. The Old World is passing, but it’s not hateful per se.


But even the best of the New World dribbles out and goes sour; the ideals do not hold, however much Penn can illuminate their ephemeral grace and poetry. As Dylan later sang: everything is broken. Or, as Wood remarks, the film’s overall and general “movement is towards disintegration”, embodied in Ray’s increasing hysteria at the end of the wedding scene (a mood-change that anticipates the drugged-out club catastrophe in Four Friends). I don’t, however, agree with the implied interpretation that it is an excess of American individualism (and thus a lack of collective politics) that sinks this countercultural ship. Penn seems to grasp it as an inevitable decline, for all-too-human reasons.


Penn’s focus is intriguing: the only truly important things happen on the level of personal relationships – love, sex, affectionate touching (there are many wonderful, throwaway details belonging to that last category). Certainly not on the macro level of Vietnam War or the presiding government, things which are so peripheral here as to be almost incidental. Penn as a director (and the master of a certain modern manner of mise en scène) becomes especially eloquent whenever he represents characters – mostly male characters – gazing in wistful agony at the evidence of their beloved’s sexual infidelity (that’s a highpoint of Four Friends), or (in a memorable scene here) trying to get a grasp of that evidence, all in the context of a general, Jules et Jim-style, free-love bohemianism. Great to dream of it, hard to live it: Penn’s verdict cuts both ways.


The place of sex in this story is, in fact, far from ecstatic, one fogged-up vignette aside. Arlo himself refuses it (to three different women of three different generations!) more often than he enjoys it, and sexual compulsion – as well as the female assumption of and acquiescence to the male libido – registers more as a sad curse than an overflowing joy. Little wonder, then, that Alice’s Restaurant has its startling “Cassavetes moment”, when the deframed paroxysm of male and female bodies in intimate conflict resembles any scene from Faces (1968). It’s the Husbands (1970) vibe: sex is a sad, sorry, messy, ever-regretted business, a collision-catastrophe zone between the all-too-separated sexes.


Beyond that general wind-down into melancholia, there’s only the doomed-from-the-start figure of the “mobile artist” Shelley (Michael McClanathan, whose sparse IMDb credits span only three years 1968-71, before he adopted the profession of bagpiper!) hooked on heroin, his image sprayed (a bit bizarrely) on a giant, black-and-white, home-movie screen (Penn couldn’t resist the shot of Alice defiantly standing in front of that projection!), and given to hell-bent, death-driven spins on his ultra-loud motorcycle. Plus a stunningly strong (not to mention prescient) note of feminist discontent that seems true to what one can read of the real-life disintegration of Alice and Ray’s marriage: in the improvised world of this “alternative” restaurant, women have to do all the cooking while the men sing, goof off and party on. The real Alice Brock, paid a helpful $12,000 for the use of her name by the production and a recurring extra in several scenes, has since frequently complained to journalists that the film turned her into an “object”, and that both the affairs with other men and the heroin angle are purely fictional inventions on Penn & Herndon’s part. But, for all that, Quinn is extraordinary in the role; it rates among Penn’s best collaborations with a performer, an area in which (as a leading participant in the Actors Studio) he was especially noted.


And that final shot! As photographed by Michael Nebbia (the little-known director of Life Study, 1973), it’s incredible: Alice out front of the church, wedding veil moving slowly and casting its shadow in the breeze, as the camera tracks back – and simultaneously zooms in on her (thus creating the “zolly” effect) – and moves screen-left in some hard-to-discern shape or angle. Just over two minutes in total, very carefully and cleverly prepared for in the interplay that proceeds it – Alice is already in place throughout, standing stock still, not joining in the goodbyes for Arlo and Mari-chan. The arrangement of the big shot is strange and impossible, and poignant exactly for that reason: Alice looks into the camera, as if locking into the gaze of Arlo in the departing car – but (we well surmise), by the time a few seconds have passed, he’s neither nearby nor looking back. It’s another kind of farewell ceremony taking place, sublimely cinematic and possible only on that level of elevated address.


The shot lands somewhere between total virtuosity and touching spontaneity – the camera wobbles a bit along its path. Unlike most similar moments in contempo cinema (some of them occasionally poorly executed, even in Goodfellas, 1990), this one embraces an added factor of disorientation by having foreground objects pop in and out of the field of vision as it moves. But when Arlo’s final reprise of the theme tune drops out altogether, and we’re just left looking at Alice in absolute silence for what seems like an empty eternity, the sadness and disintegration are complete: it’s pure emotion, nothing much like the geometric marvel of camera movement at the close of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975 – also a great final shot, but for very different reasons).


Why this amazing shot from Alice’s Restaurant didn’t make it into Histoire(s) du cinéma, I’ll never know.


MORE Penn: Target, Bonnie and Clyde

© Adrian Martin 9 November 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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