News And Commentary – Alice’s Restaurant

Alice’s Restaurant is out this week on DVD and Blu-Ray (Olive Films).  Arthur Penn’s 1969 film, inspired by the Arlo Guthrie song/shaggy dog story (and starring the young singer), is a sympathetic but cautionary ode to the counter-culture.  Made in the midst of Penn’s most fertile period as a director—after Mickey One and Bonnie and Clyde and before Little Big Man and Night MovesAlice does not stand in the first rank of his best work, but it is a thoughtful and serious film.  Roger Ebert’s four star review called it a “good work in a minor key”; Richard Schickel in Life magazine proclaimed that Alice’s Restaurant “clinches the matter” of “the arrival ofthe New American Movie.” Attentive to its weak spots, in particular aspects of movie’s pace and focus, Schickel nevertheless astutely cautioned that “it is important not to go to the New American Movie expecting to see the Old American movie.

Penn’s film is inevitably a period piece, and as such, occasionally groovy, but it holds up better than many of its contemporaries because even in 1969, the director was able to see the counter-culture from a broader perspective.  On the same side of the barricades, Penn was nevertheless on the other side of the generational divide—he fought in World War II and was forty-seven in that year of the Woodstock nation.  (The film was released during the week of the festival.)  But the politically sensitive Penn had a great admiration for the youth movements of the late 1960s.  “The new generation has totally rejected the values of the previous one, a rejection that is completely defensible and understandable,” he told the French cinema journal Positif.  These sympathies are more obvious in Alice than in any other Penn film, though the director commonly linked the themes in Alice with the sub-text of Mickey One—both films, he argued, show the United States as “a country paralyzed by fear,” in particular a materialist anxiety that is contrasted in Alice by the idealist ethos of the sixties.  Notably, even though Penn worked very closely with his writers in developing and revising screenplays (it should also be noted that here and throughout his career Penn’s closest artistic collaborator was editor Dede Allen), this was the only film for which he took a writing credit—a choice consistent with critic Robin Wood’s assessment that Alice was an intensely personal project for the director.

All the more remarkable, then, is how clear-eyed Penn remains throughout.  Alice’s Restaurant is complex, equivocal, and downbeat.  Unambiguously on the side of the counterculture, pushing fifty, Penn was wise enough to let his movie observe that in adulthood, free love sometimes leads to complications, and (a year ahead of the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin) that drugs—some drugs at least—are dangerous and destructive.   Ultimately, for a film that celebrates the search for a “new way of life,” Penn also saw the “contradictions and disappointments” of his young subjects.  Lacking a larger sense of purpose or ambition, they left behind, in his words, “a graveyard of unfinished projects,” and their admirable efforts, to some extent, were “bound to fail.”