Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant

DVD cover art for Alice's Restaurant“You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant.
You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.
You just walk right in, it’s around the back, just a half a mile from the railroad track.
You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant.”

It’s a jingle. A little rhyme, a throwaway. Sure, there’s a nifty little fingerpicking guitar part, and a long talkin’ blues kinda story about Arlo and his friends and a Thanksgiving dinner and a pile of garbage. And a visit to the draft board, and well, everybody sing the chorus one more time. It was just a song, the title song to Arlo Guthrie’s first album. “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” was the song that made his name — made him a star. It happened in 1965, the trip up to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Arlo had gone to school. The event was reported in a local newspaper.

“Youths Ordered To Clean Up Rubbish Mess” read the headline.

“Because they couldn’t find a dump open in Great Barrington, two youths threw a load of refuse down a Stockbridge hillside on Thanksgiving Day. Saturday, Richard J. Robbins, 19, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Arlo Guthrie, 18, of Howard Beach, N.Y., each paid a fine of $25 in Lee District Court after pleading guilty to illegally disposing of rubbish. Special Justice James E. Hannon ordered the youths to remove all the rubbish. They did so Saturday afternoon, following a heavy rain.”

When Guthrie reported for the draft, it was discovered that he had a criminal record, based on his conviction for littering, and was deemed unfit for military service. This is the story, the bare bones, on which Arthur Penn decided to build a film. Alice’s Restaurant the movie arrived in 1969 and featured Arlo Guthrie as himself, and a cast of unknowns and amateurs playing the other characters. The story of the “Massacree” is told in its entirety, but that takes about 20 minutes of the film’s nearly two hours. The rest of the time the film paints a picture of the ’60s, communal life, free sex, drugs, music and war.

We weren’t all hippies, we didn’t all live in communes, not everyone smoked up, or shot heroin, not even all of us played guitars and sang — but a lot of us did. Penn’s film (it may be Guthrie’s song–but most decidedly it is Penn’s film) is about the ’60s. It is about Arlo, and his friends, and the people they meet, and the things they do; but Arlo is everyman trying to make sense of the world as it spins out of his control. The amateur performances are engaging. There is truth in them. There is little good acting, but the essential honesty portrayed by each of the cast members more than makes up for their thespian failings. Jim Broderick, as Ray Brock — architect, shop teacher, and mentor to the kids — is outstanding. He is utterly believable as a man of kindness and caring who has trouble living up to the free and easy standards he proposes for everyone in his “family.” Pat Quinn is a lusty and sensual Alice, Ray’s wife … the school librarian the kids went to the library to “visit.” Officer William Obanhein gives a remarkable performance as himself. He said, “if anyone’s gonna make fun of me, it’s gonna be me!”

Arlo makes trips back to New York City where his father, Woody, lies wasting away in a hospital bed, victim of Huntington’s Chorea. These scenes are poignant and moving, as Marjorie Guthrie lights cigarettes and dangles them in Woody’s mouth. Woody stares at Arlo and his other visitors with confused eyes. Pete Seeger has a cameo as himself, and plays Woody’s “Pastures of Plenty” for the great songwriter — Arlo arrives and nods, then pulls a mouth harp out of his pocket and accompanies Pete. It is a marvelous moment. Penn is not afraid to give moments like this time to develop. He doesn’t cut away from the song, but rather allows it to finish, adding a deft touch of realism. These scenes in the hospital brought tears to my eyes. Woody was like this when Bob Dylan visited him, and sang for him in just the same way.

The actors playing the Guthries are perfect. The young actors who play the hippies are convincing and appealing. Geoff Outlaw has a free-wheeling look as Arlo’s best friend and Michael McClanathan is moody and haunted as the heroin addict Shelly. Tina Chen is beautiful as Arlo’s girlfriend. The scenes of commune life are true, not idealising the situation but showing people who try to get along, but get on each other’s nerves, use each other’s stuff, love each other’s partners. Penn doesn’t hide the human responses that come from these situations.

His camera moves freely but steadily. His cuts are not the rapidfire machine gun edits we’ve come to expect from modern film — he allows the viewer to see things, to make their own impression of the events as they unfold. The comic scenes, the “Massacree” and the draft board are played for laughs and Arlo is a natural comic. His Chaplinesque manner and his long-haired gnomic look are as out of place in a jail cell or an army barracks as a daisy in the barrel of a rifle. The story, and its handling by the film-makers, is sensitive and honest. Near the end of the film, there is a touching and beautiful scene of two funerals. The interment of Shelly, accompanied by a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Song for Aging Children,” is restrained and heart-rending.

In 1966 the real Arlo Guthrie wrote a letter to his draft board. In it he said these words…

“I do not believe that war is a means to attain good, nor that it creates love or respect for something good. I do not believe that today, anyone can win a war. Everyone involved can only lose. We can only defeat our own purpose. There are many people all over the world that feel like I do. They are of all races and of all religions, and in many cases a God is part of their belief. My God is the love that people have for one another and this love is what I have devoted my life to. I want to see it grow until all war, hatred, and ignorance have disappeared from the earth. By going to war I am going against my basis for living. This is why I can not go to war. Thank you, Arlo Guthrie.”

This provocative and compelling letter did not save Arlo from serving in Vietnam. A criminal charge of littering and creating a public nuisance did. He was deemed of “not high enough moral character to burn villages and kill people.” Arthur Penn took the bare bones of Arlo’s story and fleshed it out: he added characters, and motivations, and events that were far from Guthrie’s original, but he came out of it with a full bodied, honest portrayal of life in the ’60s. Lusty, funny, sexy, scary, Alice’s Restaurant still speaks to the viewer. Are we still listening?

(United Artists, 1969; re-issued on DVD MGM/UA 2003)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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