"Alice's Restaurant"

One of the best movies of its era anticipated the end of the '60s. More than 30 years later, Arlo Guthrie still doesn't get it.

Published February 1, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"Alice's Restaurant"
Directed by Arthur Penn
Starring Arlo Guthrie, Pat Quinn, James Broderick, police chief William Obanhein
MGM/UA; widescreen
Extras: Theatrical trailer, commentary by Arlo Guthrie

Perfectly in tune with a 1967 audience hungry to see something of the spirit of the times on-screen, Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" announced the arrival of a whole new chapter in American movies. The movie shocked and excited by reproducing the violence of the '60s and the way that young people identified with outlaws. Penn's follow-up, the subdued and elegiac "Alice's Restaurant," is almost forgotten now, and clumsy and tentative as it sometimes is, it remains one of the loveliest American movies of its era.

Arlo Guthrie's folk song epic "The Alice's Restaurant Massacree" captured the hippie notion of protest as play. Using the song and its characters as the basis for the film's screenplay, Penn evokes much of what was best about hippies: the generous and spontaneous sense of community, the attempt to find some new meaning in otherwise irrelevant traditions like Thanksgiving or marriage. And he links it with the sense of community that existed in the folk tradition embodied by Arlo's father, Woody. Folk singer Pete Seeger shows up in one of the fictionalized scenes of Arlo visiting the hospitalized Woody (Joseph Boley). In another, the hitchhiking Arlo passes by a tent revival where Lee Hays of the Weavers leads the worshipers in "Amazing Grace." The scene ends with a perfect grace note: Arlo's voice on the soundtrack saying, "It seems like Woody's road might have run through here some time."

Throughout the movie, Penn captures the divisions between hippie and straight that had riven the country without indulging in the same divisiveness. As critic Robin Wood pointed out, Arlo's nemesis Officer Obie isn't portrayed as some abstracted version of the Man; in fact, the real-life Obie, police chief William Obanhein, plays himself in the movie, and he walks through the film with the closest thing a big man can get to bemused, grumpy grace. And in the wedding that makes up the film's last 20 minutes, Penn allows a gradually deepening melancholy to take over. The party that was the '60s, he was saying, was almost over.

The DVD is purported to be a "Never-Before-Seen R-Rated Version," though for the life of me I can't see what's different. But having seen the film on screen just last spring, I can say that the transfer restores the delicate fall colors of Michael Nebbia's cinematography that had vanished from the appallingly faded existing prints. And Guthrie's commentary is fascinating, especially because, on some level, he doesn't get the film. He calls it "a valiant effort" to capture the feeling of hippies from a director who didn't really understand them, and he takes issue with the movie's message that the idealism of its characters couldn't survive the realities of the world. That's understandable, especially coming from Guthrie: He can't quite reconcile the depiction of events he lived through with the added fictionalizations. But Guthrie is a great shaggy-dog raconteur. He spends much of the commentary pointing out his friends who had parts in the movie, reminiscing about how he got to know them (and got to be friends with others, like Officer Obie, whom he affectionately calls "Bill"). He's more in tune with Penn's movie than he knows: The sense of community it celebrates survives in him.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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