ARTHUR PENN FOR ALICE’S RESTAURANT (1969)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy
Costa-Gavras for Z
George Roy Hill for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Sydney Pollack for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
The age-old Hollywood chestnut would posit that after the shocking success of Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn could have directed the phone book and gotten away with it. What actually Penn did wasn’t far off. In 1967, the same year in which Penn blew the doors off of Old Hollywood with his Nouvelle Vague-inspired gangster flick, Arlo Guthrie released a 19-minute rambling monologue about the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree. Penn would really cash in his chips one film later, with the proto-Dances with Wolves/Forrest Gump Old West epic Little Big Man. For now, though, he followed the show business adage not to follow one elephant act with another elephant act and plunged into one of the unlikeliest adaptations in Hollywood history. Such was the afterglow of Bonnie and Clyde that the Directors Branch probably would have rewarded Penn for any follow-up film at all. Still, I’m rather astonished that they would give the nod to this shaggy counterculture celebration and requiem. Even if it pales in comparison to his prior masterpiece, Alice’s Restaurant is an improbably grand and glorious snapshot of a precious, ephemeral moment in America’s cultural history.The most remarkable thing about Alice’s Restaurant is that, if anything, it pulls back from the deliberate stylistic excesses of Bonnie and Clyde. Having made his declaration for the Hollywood Renaissance, Penn now seems more fascinated by documenting another iconic chapter in American history than pushing his directorial style still further. In a sense, the film might qualify as the most avant-garde musical number of all time, following the chronicle of Arlo’s monologue, scattered in brief snippets throughout the film’s two hours. In addition to remain remarkably faithful to this sequence of events, Penn giddily throws in elements of real life: not only is the impishly likeable Arlo thrust into the film as the main character, the original blind judge, James E. Hannon (and his seeing eye dog, Susie) hand down the court’s sentence again onscreen. Apart from the surprising revelation that this part of the story wasn’t just a corny embellishment, it astonishes me that anyone would care enough to furnish this much detail in the recreation of a song. But for all of the digressions needed to get from a 19-minute recording to a 2-hour film, Penn remains surprisingly faithful to the text of the song. The sequence in the recruitment office is the one sustained sequence of madcap hilarity, worthy of Robert Altman or Hal Ashby.
What lingers with me most in this film, however, is its prescient undercurrent of melancholy. Penn acknowledges that the old America (signified by Arlo’s dying father) is passing, but he also anticipates the inevitable collapse of the counterculture movement that so jubilantly packed Alice and Ray’s title establishment to the rafters. The fullness of the Thanksgiving dinner scene midway through the film is balanced by the deserted final sequence, after all the merry freeloaders and free lovers have moved on. In one brilliant final shot, the camera lingers on a ghostly Alice standing in front of the vacant former church, obscured through the blurred forms of the barren trees in the foreground. Even before Woodstock, Altamont, and the Manson Family, Alice’s Restaurant knows that while the anthem will live on, the world it commemorates will only last for a moment.
The eclecticism of the 1969 Academy Awards could be seen in nearly every category: The Wild Bunch vs. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in Original Screenplay, Midnight Cowboy vs. True Grit in Best Director, Hello, Dolly! and Z in Best Picture. The Best Director race was just as diverse, welcoming Penn back as the senior figure with his third and final nomination. Also in the race were the British New Wave scion John Schlesinger, with his grungy (X-rated) urban portrait Midnight Cowboy, industry stalwart George Roy Hill, for the landmark buddy movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the Greek political filmmaker Costa-Gavras, breaking the Best Picture language barrier for only the second time in its history with the assassination thriller Z. Pending my evaluation of the latter contender, I’m still prepared to vote for Sydney Pollack’s talented debut with his 1930s social allegory They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? One of the major rewards I got out of my Best Actress project, this is the film I think comes closest to capturing the despair behind the Great Depression, a tremendous look at the American Dream and its affect on human nature.