Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

Worth a Watch

Directed by Arthur Penn

Written Venable Herndon & Arthur Penn

Based on “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” by Arlo Guthrie

Starring Arlo Guthrie with Pat Quinn, William Obanhein, James Broderick, Pete Seeger, & Lee Hays

Release Date: August 19, 1969

Running Time: 1hr 51min

Rating: R (originally GP)

The misadventures of folk singer, Arlo Guthrie (playing himself), as he attempts to avoid the Vietnam War draft by getting a higher education in Montana (his long hair and unorthodox ways getting him in trouble), eventually dropping out and moving back east to, going between New York and Massachusetts. The scenes in New York typically involve Arlo performing at clubs and visiting his father, folk icon Woody Guthrie (Joseph Boley), who’s dying in a hospital (the real Woody had passed away in 1967 from Huntington’s Disease).

The other focus of the film involves Ray (Broderick) and Alice Brock (Quinn), who have purchased a deconsecrated church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts that they convert into home, where many of their friends (including Arlo) stop by to hang for however long they like. Among the people living there is Shelly (Michael McClanathan), a recovering heroin addict trying to keep himself clean.

The most memorable part of the movie is what came from the famous song (itself based on a true story). Alice and Ray host a Thanksgiving dinner for their friends. After the dinner, Arlo and his friends decide to load up several months worth of trash into a red VW microbus to take to the town dump. Problem is, the dump is closed for Thanksgiving. After driving around they find another garbage pile down a small hill and decide it won’t hurt any to add theirs to the pile.

This proves to very very false, and the next morning Arlo gets a call from officer Obie (Police Chief William Obanhein as himself), asking about the garbage pile (he found a piece of mail with Arlo’s name on it). Arlo admits to it, which results in him and his friend Roger (Geoff Outlaw) getting arrested and having to go on trial. Officer Obie and his fellow officers take several photos of the scene to show to the judge, but the judge residing over the case is blind so he simply charges Arlo and Roger a fine of $25 each and they have to find a proper place to dispose of the trash.

The next best scene is also from the song, Arlo is called up for the draft, in a surreal depiction of the bureaucracy at the New York City military induction center on Whitehall Street. He attempts twice to make himself unfit for induction, first by getting drunk the night before and performing the physical exams while hung over, then by acting like a homicidal maniac in front of the psychiatrist, but fails both times (the latter incident actually gets him praise). Because of Guthrie’s criminal record for littering, he is first sent to the Group W bench (where convicts wait), then outright rejected as unfit for military service, not because of the littering incident, but because the government is suspicious of “his kind” and instead opted to submit his personal records to Washington, DC.

The film grossed $6,300,000 in the United States, making it the 23rd highest-grossing film of 1969. It got decent reviews from critics and received a few nominations, with Arthur Penn being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director (his third and final nomination).

I first saw this movie back in 2001 or 2002 on a family vacation, my dad got a copy on DVD (he was 20 years old when the movie first came out, so it was definitely a big part of his early life). At the time I wasn’t paying complete attention, I would’ve been 13 or 14 around the time, but the movie is more of a series of vignettes with a few overarching plot points, so it doesn’t require full attention.

The more melodramatic scenes do detract a little from the more lighthearted moments. Still, I think this is a good time capsule of a bygone era, that shows how some things may change (fashion, music, technology), but other things stay the same (rebellion, makeshift families, looking for your place in the world). Guthrie has a very natural camera presence and is a great storyteller; the rest of the cast does a good job too.

So if you like folk music and films of the 1960s, I say give this one a watch. Also the DVD features a delightful commentary by Guthrie, who hadn’t seen it in a while and tells a lot of fun stories of that time.

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