Arthur Penn’s picture “dramatisation” (comedisation?) of Arlo Guthrie’s classic song Alice’s Restaurant Massacre, and the actual events contributing to it, is intentionally ambling, unhurried and episodic, much like the song itself. Unlike the song, however, it’s far from a classic, regardless of the affection many may (understandably) hold for it. Penn was no master of comedy, and Guthrie is no actor, one with even less screen presence (he bears a slight resemblance to Jerry Seinfeld, also no actor, but more of one than Guthrie. And tangibly better at comedy too). Consequently, Alice’s Restaurant is rather shapeless and inert – you could confidently exit the room to brew intermittent cups of tea without feeling you’d missed anything vital, because you wouldn’t have – and it’s only really that song on the soundtrack lending it character.
Alice’s Restaurant is certainly so faint in its political position – compare it to any number of counterculture pictures that year, ones also Oscar-nominated – as to seem quaint, or even twee. Subplots abound, including the relationship between the titular Alice (Pat Quinn, based on Alice Brock) and older husband Ray (James Broderick, Matthew’s dad); they live in a boho-filled church. She’s starting a restaurant (funny that) and has a fling with junkie artist Shelly (Michael McClanathan), who rides motocross and gets back on the smack. There’s the littering incident and trial (with both arresting Officer Obie and blind judge James Hannon as themselves). Arlo turns down an underage groupie (definitely not standard rock star behaviour). She’d later become Martha Plimpton’s mum. He also gets thrown through a window for being a long hair (and then arrested for the same).
Most engaging is the draft section (earlier, Arlo encounters returning veteran Simm Landres, possessed of a claw hand, but that’s about as “shocking” as the picture gets). Arlo, who is attending college at the outset, specifically to avoid the draft, is required to “get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected”; his attempts to get himself ejected end up being commended (feigning bloodlust and yelling “Kill! Kill! Kill!” leads to the psychiatrist joining in with him). Eventually, he is put in with the Group W bench (unfit for service), who include “mother rapers… father stabbers… father rapers… Father rapers! Sittin’ right there on the bench next to me!” He gets on extremely well with them, however – after all, it was very much in fashion at that time for MKUtra’d ex-military types, soon to be convicted of multiple counts of murder, to hang out with rock stars– and is considered unfit for duty due to his littering arrest. Albeit, indirectly, as more specifically, he questioned the criteria of littering being an issue when selecting candidates.
Like the same year’s counterculture-vibe Oscar nominees Easy Rider and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Alice’s Restaurant ends on a note of recognition that the aspirations of the hippie dream just aren’t cutting it (Alice and Ray have got hitched, but the bohos have all upped and left; Alice stands contemplatively on the steps. Their future looks bleak and lonely; the real Alice and Ray’s divorce was finalised on the day the movie’s wedding scene was filmed. She objected to the picture’s fabrications). Ralph Brown’s Danny would later characterise this in his 1969-set Withnail and I speech, but that it’s so prevailingly illustrated in pictures at the time adds to the suspicion of a decade-spanning, apparently organic movement having been covertly mapped out as a means to readjusting the social dynamic.
By-the-by, I noted the inverted triangle in the circle symbol of Shelly’s motocross, the Trinity Racing team; there doesn’t appear to be fixed interpretation of this, although the downward triangle is the symbol for water (and female divinity) and while the circle represents fulfilment, unity and completeness. It’s used in Manga-associated Jashinism (making it doubtful there’s any link). It also bears some relation, in an inverted sense, to the Goetic circle of black evocation. Which is potentially alarming. Perhaps it’s just an inverted triangle in a circle (the three points symbolising trinity).
Penn called Alice’s Restaurant a “bourgeois film”, and perhaps its “not particularly threatening” quality, in tandem with its overt amiability, destined its relegation to an idling footnote of the era. Penn has no real lightness of touch and no comic energy; he invests the dramatic scenes (Ray, Alice, Shelly) with gravitas, but they butt heads with Guthrie’s barely-there quirkiness. And when the two share a scene – “Cool it!”; “It’s my church” – you immediately realise that they can’t be sustained, so any tension dissipates.
Pauline Kael gave the picture and Penn some credit. It was “strained and self-conscious”, but “because Alice’s Restaurant, despite its weaknesses, was an attempt to get at something, one wants to see him come into his own”. She considered it “badly done” yet respected it “feeling its way” in the then nascent landscape of New Hollywood; as a “groping attempt to express something” it was “formally superior” to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (she had it in for William Goldman’s work on that movie, one of her many entertaining but waaaay-off assessments).
Indeed, Kael was almost perversely forgiving of Alice’s Restaurant, as a counterpoint, suggesting “we’re for him, and that’s what carries the movie. Conceptually, it’s unformed, with the director trying to discover his subject as well as its meaning and his own attitudes”. Perhaps, because she’d been so supportive of Bonnie and Clyde, she couldn’t then simply write off Penn’s follow up; neither could the Academy, hence the mystifying Best Director nomination. Penn would make further films of note (Night Moves especially) but his career never quite matched the expectations many had for him post-Bonnie and Clyde.
First published by Now in Full Color on 08/05/22.