Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Alice's Restaurant

I've just watched Alice's Restaurant again. I first saw this some time in the early eighties, when I was just the right, impressionable age for it, pretty much the same age as Arlo and Roger et al in the film. I have to say, watching it tonight, I am surprised by how dark it is, and how early that darkness emerges. I remember it being much sunnier, throughout. I suspect this is because I've listened to the Alice's Restaurant Massacree hundreds of times since, and have remembered only that - very funny - strand of the film.

I think it is still a pretty good film. It is dated, for sure, but nonetheless I think it holds up well. It was released in late summer 1969. In March of that year Jim Morrison was arrested for the penis incident in Miami. In December came Altamont: the sixties ended, literally and metaphorically. And that sense of fin de siecle comes over in Alice's Restaurant. It may simply be hindsight that is providing that interpretation for me, of course, but I don't think so.

And I don't think so because of Alice. I do have some difficulty with the character of her husband, Ray, in the film, because he turns too quickly, and too completely, into a complete bastard. Anyone who is such a bastard will have shown signs of it earlier in their relationship. But Alice is a wonderful character, and the ending of the film could break your heart. It is beautiful, tragic, superbly handled. Alice and Ray's second wedding day has gone badly. The idyll has ended, their marital break-up is certain. The young people have gone their separate ways and Alice is left all alone. The camera lingers. It tracks very slowly, focused on Alice in her wedding dress as she stands on the porch looking into the distance. Two or three trees come into shot, obscuring our view of Alice, but each time she reappears, coming closer into view, and by the end it almost feels voyeuristic, like we are intruding on this woman's personal grief. All the time Arlo Guthrie is singing a slow, almost plaintive version of the chorus of Alice's Restaurant. Like the best ragtime music, it can sound both joyful and sad, depending on the tempo. It is at this point that he sings what you hear on the album - "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant - [sotte voce] excepting Alice". On the record it sounds funny, a nice throwaway line. Here it is heartbreaking. Then the music stops and it seems as though the camera has stopped as well, but it hasn't; it is still running, and Alice is still there, staring out at us in silence. This lasts for fifteen seconds or so, an extremely long time, unsettling, painful. Then the director, Arthur Penn, relents, and the scene ends, and with it the film. It's an absolutely wonderful scene, simply perfect. Your thoughts are left with Alice, a truly good woman. A quite superb scene.

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