Alice’s Restaurant: Arthur Penn’s Zeitgeist Film

Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant, inspired by Arlo Guthrie’s popular talking-blues ballad, “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” was a summation of a generation that was anti-establishment and anti-Vietnam. An experiment in collectivist life, the film begins by celebrating the virtues of communes. Set in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a surrogate family, headed by the married Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray Brock (James Broderick) includes hippies, college dropouts, and other “deviants” who can’t conform to mainstream society.

The (anti)hero is Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary folk singer, who connects among the film’s disjointed sequences. Arlo wears long hair, smokes dope, and gets in trouble with any form of authority: the college, police, and military. In one sequence, Arlo is at a Draft Registration Center, surrounded by youngsters who pretend to be rapists, homosexuals, and psychopaths, all trying to escape the draft. The military is ridiculed for its narrow bureaucratic procedures and commitment to destruction; Arlo shrieks to the military shrink, “I wanna kill!” The incomprehensible military forms serve as a metaphor for “red tape” bureaucracy. When Arlo is arrested for illegally dumping garbage, he’s subjected to advanced police technique, a metaphor for the technology used in Vietnam.

The film sides with the youth counterculture, using the ballad of its title to chronicle social ills (bureaucratic hypocrisy, repressive authority, rigid police) of the time. But it also contains criticism of and disillusionment with youth culture. At the end, after attempts at an alternative lifestyle to the nuclear family, the commune collapses. Ray believes that buying a farm in Vermont would solve the problem. “If we’d a just had a real place,” he says, “we’d all still been together…without buggin’ each other…we’d all be some kind of family.”

Ray is a dreamer who has not lost his naiveté, but he also understands the tension between private and collective life. He envisions a utopian commune, “where everybody can have his own house, and we could all see each other when we wanted to, or not see each other, but all be there.” Ironically, the members leave the commune shortly after Ray and Alice’s second marriage, a ritualistic ceremony designed to promote integration.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Director: Arthur Penn

Oscar Context

The winner was John Schlesinger for “Midnight Cowboy,” which also won the Best Picture Oscar. Directors seldom win the award if their films are not nominated for Best Picture.