As the follow-up to his big 1967 breakout hit film Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn made a movie in 1969 based on Arlo Guthrie's famous rambling draft-dodging folk song "Alice's Restaurant." Best I can tell, this movie was not a big hit, and doesn't particularly have a big reputation today.
Arguably though, the movie is a far greater artistic achievement than Arlo's sweet and catchy but somewhat shallow song. A hawk who thought that the Vietnam war was necessary and appropriate would dismiss the idea that littering would disqualify you from defending the country just as vigorously as hippy Arlo thought it was ridiculous that littering was considered to have made him morally unfit to shoot up Vietnam. That's just an illustration of rigid bureaucratic foolishness, not really any big statement about The War. Likewise, the movie is not a big moral statement so much as a quiet observation of this troubled corner of the human experience.
Arlo played himself in the movie, and the tale of the garbage and the draft board came out as pretty much a straight illustration of the song narrative. It is of course a funny story, and Arlo made for a very natural and charming screen presence. It's kind of a shame that he hasn't had more of an acting career.
I was particularly pleased to find that officer William Obanhein played himself in the movie. He had maybe not name recognition, but much more positive public renown as a repeat model for famous Stockbridge resident Norman Rockwell. As the local chief of police, he was the subject of numerous Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers and such, like this famous painting of The Runaway.
Whereas of course the song makes him out for the butt of the joke, a real life incarnation of Barney Fife carrying on about the rules at the big house. It doesn't sound like he really needed the recognition that badly, but he cheerfully played the fool in the movie. He showed some significantly better sense of perspective than you would guess from the original song. Deputy Fife would have never done this.
However, the song is not nearly enough to make a movie. A movie wouldn't have any need for more than the eighteen minute length of the original song for these two little vignettes. After all, Arlo thoroughly broke down the harrowing details of the 27 8x10 color glossy photos in the song. How much more could you wring that out?
But like Arlo ten minutes into singing the damned song, that's not what we came here to talk about. The rest of the movie has a much different and more serious tone. The movie is a low-key but totally serious drama to which Officer Obie and the draft board are the comic relief. The silly bureaucracy of the draft board is a deserving, but easy target for satire.
Instead, the movie is primarily an examination of the problems and shortcomings of the hippies as they flop around aimlessly and self-indulgently through life. Okay, war is bad and the squares are kinda square- but really, how much better and more enlightened are the cool kids?
Alice and Arlo's crowd has thrown off the shackles and restrictions of The Man, but for what? What have you got instead that is better? Consider this a cautionary tale. Just exactly where does all this new-found "freedom" and free love get you?
For starters, it gets one of their friends dead from dope. This movie was made during the 1960s, the early days of the modern drug culture. The movie was thus one of the first significant examinations of the real consequences of this stuff from within the culture. It doesn't do you much good to avoid a noble death in a stupid war overseas if you're just going to die ignobly at home in the gutter instead.
Now, I wouldn't say that Penn was trying to make quite that much of a Profound Statement. One of the good points of the movie like the song is the modesty of the ambition, as likewise for the original song. Arlo had a point, but he didn't overreach for a cheap stab at Profundity.
The free love idea particularly didn't come out looking so hot either. Probably the thing in this movie that made the biggest impression on me was a scene in which Arlo rebuffed the advances of a young groupie who wanted to have sex with him because he was going to be a record some day. Now, Arlo's red-blooded and all, but he was clearly quietly seriously distressed by this.
The screenplay doesn't have him specifically articulating his dis-ease, but this clearly represented not just a loosening of outmoded restrictions but self-degradation and a cheapening of social bonds. What would a girl such as this be thinking of herself that she's wanting to give her body for the anticipated prestige of telling people that she'd had random, meaningless sex with a guy who has a recording contract?
This is not a pretty picture of the sexual revolution. However, this display of male sensitivity apparently resulted in Arlo getting a lot of tang thrown at him subsequently in the real world.
Other than the obvious tent pole events from the song, the movie doesn't have that strong a plot. But that reflects the lack of linear plot in the lives of the drifting hippy subjects of the film. That's not to say that it's pointless or aimless, but that it's more about ongoing themes without much clear resolution rather than a specific story.
The most significant theme of the movie is lack of any sense of responsibility within their community. It's all happy go lucky, but in the practice a lot of the burden of the survival of their whole sweet but sorry group came down to Alice (Remember Alice? This is a movie about Alice) putting in the hours of labor in the restaurant to keep food on the table. Work ethic was clearly not a high value to most of these other characters, though- including her husband.
I don't know all the actual historical details of of the Brock relationship or which ones of these characters in this quasi-historical narrative are real. I note that Arlo is credited writing wise only with the song, not anything else in the screenplay. That is credited to a Venable Herndon, who has only one other obscure tv writing credit at IMDB. Doesn't matter to me, as my interest is in this specific artifact. Anyway, the hip community in this film was just as screwed up as the squares.
But beyond that, the lack of responsibility gets right down to their intimate relationships, evidenced as faithlessness. Thus, Ray is more or less the bad guy at least in the movie version really more than any intruding adults. He's too wussy to be particularly wicked, but there's Alice left holding the bag, standing all alone and abandoned in the end of it.
It really does turn out to be a movie about Alice, unlike the song.
Obie pix from Arlo.net, natch
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