Sometimes, it is easy to forget that Woodstock poster child Arlo Guthrie is the son of radical Progressive folksinger Woody Guthrie. Partly this is because Arlo was the darling of the dope smoking, long-haired 60’s generation, whereas Woody was the straight talking voice of the hard scrabble Dust Bowl generation. But it's also partly because Arlo carved an independent career for himself in those halcyon hippie days of peace, love, and understanding.
Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land,” and sang about immigrants and deportees with the motto “ This Machine Kills Fascists” emblazoned upon his guitar. Arlo forged an equally iconic trail for himself singing about smuggling weed, disappearing railways, and littering. It was, in fact, “ Alice's Restaurant Massacree,” Arlo’s 18 minute 34 second reminiscence, in monologue and melody, on his 1967 debut album that alerted the outside world about the little Stockbridge, Massachusetts eatery that almost could.
The saga of the “Alice's Restaurant Massacree” recounted a real life tale featuring real life characters and exploits, featuring a real life Alice, Guthrie’s real life arrest for adding a pile of restaurant garbage to an already existing pile of garbage by the side of the road (after all, it was Thanksgiving and all the dumps were closed), and his induction, and subsequent rejection, for military service. And, it was all almost true, except that Guthrie, being a consummate storyteller, even at the tender age of 20 when the song was first released, exaggerated some of the claims here and there. But just a little and mostly for comic effect.
Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, decided that Guthrie’s talking blues-style tale could be a commercial cinematic proposition. Hiring the baby-faced Arlo Guthrie to portray a version of himself, and 45-year-old director Arthur Penn, hot off his success with 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, to adapt Guthrie’s rambling monologue into a coherent screenplay -- you know, the kind that Hollywood likes -- Alice’s Restaurant, the movie, was poised to strike cinematic gold.
Did I mention that the director and screenwriter, Arthur Penn, was 45-years-old? Now, don’t get me wrong, because, as everybody knows, in today’s lingo 50 is the new 30… everybody knows that!!! However, in 1967, regardless of directorial credentials, and regardless of a director’s Progressive political leanings, and regardless of a director’s avowed sympathy for society’s underdog, an individual who is 45-years-old is categorically not a member of the youth generation that was developing a plan for taking over the world.
Arlo Guthrie was 18-years-old when he began writing the “Alice's Restaurant Massacree” song. It goes without saying that an 18-year-old’s perspective on the world must, of necessity, be somewhat different from a 45-year-old’s perspective of life, the universe, and everything. When one considers the cultural revolution that was taking place between 1965 and 1969, it is clear that a fundamental generational divide separated the worldview of a teenager and the worldview of an adult. ESPECIALLY in the late 1960’s.
In that sense, we can consider the film Alice’s Restaurant to be an adult’s understanding of the song, of the times, and of the anti-war movement (which the “Alice's Restaurant Massacree,” as written and performed by Arlo Guthrie, was ostensibly about). One could, I suppose, be charitable and propose that an adult’s perspective on the youth movement could provide a clear-eyed and objective assessment of its cultural significance. Yeah, that’s it.
Well, let’s see… in the film Alice’s Restaurant, the character of Ray Brock, modeled after the same Ray Brock who is married to the real-life Alice Brock in the song “Alice's Restaurant Massacree,” is unmistakably an adult. He is a father figure to the misfits and outlaws who come to crash at the 19 th century Massachusetts church he has refashioned into a commune of sorts. The actor who played Ray Brock, veteran actor James Broderick, who would go on to star as the father in television’s Family in the late 70’s, with Kristy McNichol and Meredith Baxter-Birney, was 40-years-old at the time of filming.
The audience is supposed to believe that the kids who are coming to seek refuge in his church, kids who are attempting to escape the oppression of their parents, of their government, and of society in general are going to trust somebody well over 30 to take care of them. I mean, every other adult in their lives is a part of the machine that is trying to grind them down, but all of a sudden, this adult guy from their parents’ generation is cool because he lets them smoke dope, or whatever?
Some might find this plot twist implausible, or maybe inconceivable. Other, less charitable critics, might refer to it as “bullshit.”
Let’s examine the adult in the room for a second. “Movie” Ray drinks too much, flirts with other women in front of his wife, seems a bit boorish (always proclaiming something loudly or drawing attention to himself in some way -- maybe it’s just that “Method” acting thing we hear so much about), overseasons his wife’s perfectly good chili and, when questioned about it by the moody junkie anti-hero of the group, pins him down and force feeds it to him.
Ray also dangerously comes speeding into the church on his motorcycle with no thought that somebody might be run over and killed due to his negligence…
Hmmm, let’s see…anything else?
Oh, oh yeah… so, after screaming “Bitch, what the hell do you think you’re doin’?” at Alice, Ray gets into a bit of a tussle with the house heroin addict. When Alice pleads with him to stop beating the shit out of the junkie, he slaps her down instead, right there in front of everyone.
Now, I don’t know a whole lot about free love hippie death cults or anything, but I would assume that when your cult leader starts calling women names and smacking them up, it’s time to move on. However, a couple of scenes later, the family is back together again with the junkie’s casket in the back of the truck (I guess we saw that coming), and Alice is riding shotgun in their homemade hearse with her man.
Unfortunately, Alice, the title character, gets the short end of many sticks in this film. The scriptwriters have her refer to herself as a “Bitch” (as in, “I guess I’m the bitch with too many pups. I couldn’t take them all milking me” -- oh, it’s in the “metaphorical mother dog bitch” sense, so it must be okay), make it seem as though she sleeps with anyone who comes anywhere near her, and insist on portraying her as perpetually hysterical, always screaming at the top of her lungs.
Sorta makes one wonder, doesn’t it? Like, what were the filmmakers thinking about women in 1968 when the movie was being filmed? What were they trying to convince their audiences of about women? Was this how corporate adults really believed flower children behaved? All junked out, criminally inclined, oversexed, and violent? And living in a deconsecrated church, for God’s sake! That’s outright sacrilege!
Wait, weren’t the peace love flower children of 1969 the target demographic for this film? What is going on here? Or, as Arlo says at a certain point, “Where the hell are we anyway?”
Good question, Arlo. Where, indeed.
All is not lost with Alice’s Restaurant, however. It is certainly shot well. Arthur Penn knew where to place a camera, no argument there. The costume and art departments put together a truly magnificent production, with groovy threads and cool pads for everyone. The film may have given us the VW microbus. And, Arlo is also pretty awesome.
For the kids, there is the legendary Lee Hays from blacklisted 1950’s folk group The Weavers leading a tent revival meeting of “Amazing Grace,” as well as fellow blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger singing a beautiful version of “Pastures of Plenty” to an actor playing a bedridden Woody Guthrie. Even the real Alice Brock makes a couple of cameos (do you think she might have walked over to Arthur Penn and whispered in his ear, “Uh, that’s not how it really went down”?), and the actual arresting officer and presiding judge from the original Arlo Guthrie litterbug case play themselves.
Dammit, even the church the movie was filmed in is the actual church that Ray and Alice lived in (and which is now owned by Arlo Guthrie, and the site of The Guthrie Center, an interdenominational non-profit organization devoted to “ cultural, educational, and spiritual exchange”).
So, what are we to make of Alice’s Restaurant the movie? Well, the closing shot of Alice could be one of the most heartbreaking in cinema history, but the song is genius.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.