Alice's Restaurant Review
'The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree', a talking blues song by Arlo Guthrie, details how a court appearance over littering prevented him from being drafted to Vietnam. Alice’s Restaurant, a 1969 motion picture by Arthur Penn, details the same story, but expands it into a paean for the counter-cultural movement, whilst also signalling its end.
Playing Arlo Guthrie is Arlo Guthrie, who will most likely be familiar to cinemagoers from his appearance in Michael Wadleigh’s documentary of the 1969 Woodstock festival. Despite performing only one song in that film, 'Coming Into Los Angeles' (“don‘t search my bags if you please/mister customs man”), Guthrie’s charm still stood out amongst the likes of The Who and Jimi Hendrix. As anyone who has witnessed this performance will testify, you can’t help but be amused by the way he finishes every sentence with “Can ya dig that? Far out!”.
This charm is continued in his performance here. On screen for the vast majority of the time, his lazy-eyed humour is present in every situation; whether being arrested, facing a military psychiatrist or refusing to sleep with a 14 year old groupie. For those who haven’t made the connection, Arlo is the son of famed folk singer Woody Guthrie (also portrayed in the film), who himself had a biopic made about his life, Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory from 1976.
It’s interesting to compare the two films as both amble along with the same freewheeling pace. Yet whereas Bound for Glory detailed Guthrie’s determined hitchhiking across America, Alice’s Restaurant is a much more relaxed picture. For the most part very little happens, indeed the recreation of the story contained in the original song lasts for about a third of the running time. This isn’t to say, however, that the film lacks direction. As said, Arthur Penn intends this to be as much about the end of the hippy movement as it is about the movement itself. He constantly offers little throwaway moments that speak volumes, and most importantly never seems to overstate his case.
This is best illustrated in the sub-plot concerning one of Arlo’s friends, Shelly (Michael McClanathan), a reformed junkie with psychological problems. Whilst the film focuses on his character a great deal, it never overtly connects his difficulties with that of the movement (although this may partially because hindsight tells us heroin was to become a big problem with sub-cultures during the seventies, a time after the film was made). Rather, it merely serves as a counter-balance to the more joyous events (and the rich vein of humour which runs throughout Alice’s Restaurant provides many), allowing the audience to make up their own minds. (The film would make a great double-bill with Milos Forman’s first American film, Taking Off, from 1971. It places the counter-cultural movement within the context of a middle-class, and similarly makes barbed comments whilst also being frequently hilarious.)
It is this lack of a didactic edge which strongly places the film amongst Arthur Penn’s finest works. A look at the likes of The Left-Handed Gun, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks, and his most famous picture, Bonnie and Clyde, reveals a penchant for ambiguous characters, yet Penn never offers any moral judgement. That’s not to say that Penn is in anyway a “cold” filmmaker, indeed Alice’s Restaurant’s final shot is one of the most heartbreaking ever.
Picture and Sound
Unfortunately, the image is hugely let down by almost constant artefacting. A shame, as everything else about the picture is fine, offering both sharp colours and detail.
Soundwise, the original mono track is provided (spread over the two front speakers). Very little problems occur and the numerous songs sound fantastic.
Only the theatrical trailer (this is after all an MGM back catalogue title), although this one features new footage of Guthrie as he sings his original song intercut with footage from the film. It’s interesting to see how the film was marketed at the time, indeed to someone unfamiliar with the film it would appear to be a broad comedy
Whilst we should be thankful that MGM have deemed fit to release this neglected gem, it’s a great shame that the presentation lets it down an immense deal. Still, for those willing to accept this fault, Alice's Restaurant is a wonderful film.