THERE is this unspeakable sadness all over the place. It has been around for years now and no one knows what to call it or how to define it. It isn't something you can talk about directly. You just feel it. Every morning when you wake up and every night when you go to bed. It is an American sadness.
Arthur Penn's new film, Alice's Restaurant, is an attempt to construct, of all things, a comedy around this sadness. It works. It works so well that I started crying about halfway through the movie and didn't really recover until the next morning. I don't even remember the last time I cried for a second in a theatre, but I had to cry during Alice's Restaurant. I had to cry to keep from going insane.
Like his last film, Bonnie and Clyde, Penn's latest is the story of a group of people who are out of sync with their society. Bonnie, Clyde, C. W. Moss, Blanche and Buck were misfits in a depression crazy America. They turned to violence as a means of etching out an existence against the fabric of a forlorn dust-bowl.
But Arlo Guthrie, Ray and Alice Brock and the others who are at the center of Alice's Restaurant are a different kind of misfit in a different kind of misfit in a different kind of America. They are potent, generous people with good minds and uncluttered hearts. They know how to love. And the America they find themselves in is not one of depression but one of abundance.
"You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant..." goes Arlo's now legendary song, which is both the inspiration and structural framework of the film. And you can. Alice and Ray, the couple that sets up home in a Stockbridge, Massachusetts church as the film begins, have everything: shelter and food and grass aplenty. And when Arlo and his friends, the misplaced and the homeless of American kids, come up to Stockbridge, they know there will be a home, sustenance, and love waiting for them.
But that doesn't make life any better for Ray and Alice's friends, even though it should. They set up a restaurant for Alice in the middle of Stockbridge, but it collapses in a marital spat between the Brocks. Shelly, a guy in the group who likes motorcycles, art and heroin, kicks the smack habit only to revert to it later on when he discovers that he can't have Alice for his very own. Arlo beats the draft only to realize that "the good things in [his] life seem to come out of not doing what [he] doesn't want to do." What does Arlo want to do? He doesn't know.
AS HIS SONG tells us, "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant, exceptin' Alice" -and that's the whole story. We can't get Alice. We can't get at that central heartbeat that is the real source of life any better than Richard Nixon can. And if we can't get at that, we might as well be dead. When Shelly discovers that he can't have Alice, he not only goes back to heroin, but he kills himself.
Alice's Restaurant , however, is not a film erupting with death and disaster. It is, on the surface anyway, the story of how Arlo gets busted on a ridiculous littering charge in Stockbridge and later discovers that the charge will exempt him from military responsibilities to the United States. Like the Flatt and Scruggs' banjo music that underscores Bonnie and Clyde, Arlo's song of the "Alice's Restaurant Massacre" gives an essentially tragic movie the look of a comedy.
But from the word go, Alice's Restaurant is Arthur Penn's movie, not Arlo's. (In addition to directing, Penn co-wrote the screenplay with Venable Herndon.) The director's control becomes clear very early in the picture, where he gives us the first of several scenes set in Arlo's father's hospital room.
Arlo's father, needless to say, was Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, now dead, was one of the giant figures of the Bonnie and Clyde era of American history. As a depression folksinger-songwriter, he was both social critic and super-patriot. During the last fifteen years of his life, a congenital nerve disease paralyzed, silenced and slowly killed him. (The same disease could hit Arlo in his thirties.)
In the film, we see Woody Guthrie during his last year. He lies in bed-still, dumb. Arlo comes to talk to him from time to time, even though his father cannot react. All Arlo (and the audience) can do is wonder what goes through Woody's mind.
At one of Arlo's hospital calls, Pete Secger. Woody's friend and fellow folksinger, is also present. Secger sings one of Woody's songs to him: "... Along your green valley I'll live till I die My life I'll defend with my life if it be For my pastures of plenty must always be free! "
It's Pete Secger who is singing that song-Secger, a man who was blacklisted and red-baited for most of the past twenty years. It's Woody Guthrie who wrote the song-Guthrie, a man who fought for the best in America only to see the best lose out to the worst. Woody's presence casts a spell of doom over every bit of Alice's Restaurant: He at least kept the faith: Arlo and the rest of us can't even do that.
LIKE Easy Rider, then, Penn's film is full of the spirit of an America lost. But the films couldn't be more different. Rider gives us a hero and hope (Captain America) and a gun-wielding villain (middle America). Alice's Restaurant gives us no hero, no villain and precious little hope.
Also unlike Rider, Restaurant is incredibly close to earth. Grass is smoked, girls are screwed, and motorcycles are raced, but Penn and his wonderful film editor. Dede Allen, do not point at these things as Dennis Hopper does in the Peter Fonda epic. Nor do we get the glamorized, generalized "real-life" performances of Rider in this picture. Arlo is a natural, uneasy, stuttering Arlo-not a hippie-stud (like Fonda) or a hippie-hippie (like Hopper).
Yet the restaurant belongs to Alice (Pat Quinn) and she must remain central to the film's aciton. At the movie's end, her husband Ray (James Broderick) tells her that they will find salvation up in Vermont, on acres and acres of farmland. She stands in front of their church, in the growing New England afternoon darkness, wanting to believe him. But he has gone and she is not sure. The camera moves around her, approaching her face from every vantage point, trying to show us what Alice's face has to say about it all. And what is her expression as the darkness sets in? I don't know. My mind tells me it's uncertainty, but my heart says it's horror.