Arlo Guthrie: More Nowness Than Newness
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August 28, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 46
by Andrew Sarris
"ALICE'S RESTAURANT" is about as likable in a limited way as Arlo Guthrie, a curiously coquettish folk-something unlike anything else. Peeping out from under his lanky locks with passively blank eyes and stubbornly pursed lips, he resembles nothing so much as a perverse tomboy determined not to wear a party dress ever. He's not a great artist even by the instant immortality standards of the pop scene, and I can't say his talk-sing ballads ever turn me on, but he does have something; charm, perhaps, more than talent; nowness more than newness. I feel also that he is psychically and sexually healthier than those of his elders who choose (unwisely) to question his manhood.
Even though he does not yet fully know himself, Arlo Guthrie is fully content to be himself with all the hard knocks that go with being first person singular in a world programmed for third person plural. But unlike other hippie artifacts, "Alice's Restaurant" does not insist on confusing the first person singular with the first person plural. Guthrie, writer-director Arthur Penn, and co-scenarist Venable Herndon are to be commended for not extending the small world encompassed in Guthrie's ballad, "The Alice's Restaurant Massacre," to an entire generation. Hence, there is not in "Alice's Restaurant" any of the peevish paranoia to be found in almost every reel of "Easy Rider."
Arthur Penn's career has consisted mostly of ballads of one form or another; at worst, exercises in muddled allegory ("Mickey One" and "The Chase") and, even at best, there is a tendency toward mindless lyricism ("The Left-Handed Gun" and "Bonnie and Clyde"), all in all, a cinema considerably stronger in feelings than informs, a cinema concerned more with images than with ideas. Significantly, Penn's best films (and "Alice's Restaurant" is one of his better ones) deal with characters at least partly biographical rather than completely fictional. Penn's personality as a director manifests itself therefore as a flair for adding a poetic dimension to reality, and a lyrical refrain to biography. The exuberant humor in Penn's films serves to intensify the sadness and loneliness of his characters. It is as if he were staging pillow fights in funeral parlors. Penn does not so much switch from mood to mood as express through each mood the nerve-wracking instability of existence. But his films, unlike those of the Perry's, never give the impression that he knows where it is all going to end. Life is hard and uncertain and virtually hopeless, but it can be fun if you don't think too far ahead. Indeed, Penn's instincts are so contemporaneous that it strikes this neutral, disenchanted observer that if Arlo Guthrie had not met Arthur Penn, they would have had to invent each other to get "Alice's Restaurant" out of the kitchen and on to the screen.
The movie is well-served by a real-life-looking cast headed by Guthrie, Pat Quinn's remarkably reasonable facsimile of Alice complete with her roosterish Ray played by James Broderick, a dead ringer for Norman Mailer and, I am told, the late James Agee; and, of the real-deal players, an extraordinarily genial and expansive incarnation of Officer Obie by the officer himself, William Obanheim. Except for some ugly encounters in the beginning between Ultra-America and Un-America, "Alice's Restaurant" is mercifully free of gratuitous malice. The sexual intrigue involving Alice and the mixed-up male moths fluttering around her libidinous light erupts on the screen like an ancient melodrama out of the Garden of Eden. The human animal is not capable of sustaining the psychic generosity required for universal brotherhood and love, and new forms, as Antonioni has told us so many times, cannot entirely obliterate ancient feelings. And so, "Alice's Restaurant" ends sadly if not badly, with little hope and less joy, and a curiously generalized camera viewpoint as if Penn, Guthrie, and especially Alice didn't have the foggiest idea of who was to blame for the end of a dream and the death of a community. Still, it was fun, while it lasted, especially when Arlo Guthrie was sidestepping the draft board, the long arm of the law, and the siren squeak of Shelley Plimpton's pop-bop-and-sniffle courtesan...
"MEDIUM COOL" parades its innocence, clumsiness, and simple-mindedness as civic virtues while it confronts the Chicago charivari of 1968 with footage; some documentary, some simulated; stuck together with the band-aid of broken-headed liberalism. Haskell Wexler's first movie proves among other things that good cinematography does not necessarily make good cinema. His preoccupation with pigeons on one occasion is pleasantly diverting, but hardly conducive to coherence. Nor are some wide-angle gymnastics with two boring lovers more than a cameraman's interlude in a movie that is almost all interludes. My feeling is that Wexler exploits Chicago more than he explores or even exhumes it, and he has fallen back on all kinds of Godardian gimmicks to conceal the blatant contrivances of his plot and the unconvincing schematization of his characters. Robert Forster's television photographer is an especially false characterization in that he partakes of both documentary characterization which describes the way people are at any given moment the camera happens to swoop down on them and dramatic characterization which depicts people at their turning points of their lives.
Wexler tries to have it both ways by starting the photographer off as a kind of hard-boiled, cynical "Blow-Up" character who is implicated in the violent orientation of the media. Then suddenly in mid-convention, the erstwhile cynic is radicalized by the realization that the networks have been turning over crowd footage to the FBI and the police. Wexler thus provides us with the drama of conversion without the drudgery of characterization, a form of cheating that is more ludicrous than lamentable. Meanwhile, love blossoms between the redeemed photographer and a young mother (Verna Bloom) out of white Appalachia. The natural playing of the mother and her stoical little boy (Harold Blankenship) provide the best scenes in the movie, but again these scenes are grotesquely inconsistent with the wildly melodramatic contrivance of the boy's running away during the most riotous day of the convention so that Wexler's camera can follow the distraught mother past the demonstrators and the police, footage of which, simulated or not, is curiously ambiguous when compared with the one-sided impression provided by television at the time. To end the film on a proper note of apocalyptic fatality, Wexler fictionalizes an automobile accident that claims the lives of his two protagonists in a straight lift from Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt."
But that's the big problem with Chicago. With all the brutality and head-breaking, no one was actually killed as a result of the convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey whereas seven blacks in Miami were slain during the convention that nominated Richard Nixon but there were no photographers present, no upper-middle-class white demonstrators, no cultural emissaries from Esquire and the Playboy Club. The slaughter in Miami was a happening, and it only goes to prove that social protest is ill-advised without the proper press-agentry. I have already seen several films on Chicago in 1968, but I don't ever expect to see any on the murders in Miami. Fortunately, I have never been in the habit of letting film-makers take charge of my political education, and a faux naif like Wexler least of all.
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