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Alice's Restaurant

There are more things you can't get at Alice's Restaurant than just Alice — including acting talent and a cohesive story. Made in 1969, Alice's Restaurant is based on a long drawn-out Arlo Gutherie song about true events involving an old church in Stockbridge, Mass., illegal garbage dumping, and the draft board. Director Arthur Penn (who lived in Stockbridge and was fresh off Bonnie and Clyde) wanted to recreate the story of Alice and her restaurant, and the hippie movement that professed peace, love, drugs, and mayhem. Penn and Venable Herndon embellished on the song by adding "...weird stuff to make the movie more interesting," according to Guthrie. The true part of the story is that Guthrie's friends Alice and Ray bought a church and invited friends to celebrate Thanksgiving there. Guthrie and a friend then hauled away the garbage from the feast, tossing it in a nearby ravine when they discovered that the town dump was closed. The police found a letter with Guthrie's name on it where the garbage was dumped, tracked him down, and arrested him for littering. He was convicted and had to pay a fine and pick up the garbage. But this infraction of the law later helped Guthrie avoid being drafted, because he had a criminal record. Alice's Restaurant, starring Guthrie, Patricia Quinn, and James Broderick, is a silly, bewildering jumble of scenes. But here is a DVD in which the audio commentary makes a poor film actually worth watching. Arlo Gutherie (son of legendary singer Woody Gutherie ) sat for a commentary track, and he is so good natured, realistic, and unapologetic about the film that it actually becomes an entertaining history lesson. In fact, an encapsulation of the '60s hippie movement as a piece of American history was originally what Penn was trying to establish in the film. Gutherie, through his commentary 30-plus years later, gives a much more accessible perspective to '60s attitudes and concerns, pointing out that the film fails to frame the decade properly because it was an attempt by the filmmakers to depict a lifestyle they didn't really understand. What's more, all the negative aspects of the story were made up to give the film more edge. "We had a much better time in those days than the movie reflects," says Gutherie. "They made the movie to show how valiant our attempt was to create a... new world." But because the filmmakers didn't believe the movement would have any long-term effect, they depicted it as a failure. Gutherie, on the other hand, thinks he and those who were like-minded have succeeded in making the world a better place. Guthrie's humorous remarks are far more entertaining than any dialogue in the movie, as he comments on the funny clothes, odd sets, and his atrocious acting. He tells interesting "where are they now" stories about various members of the cast, and he points out how ironic is was that many of the extras are the real people that are being played by the professional actors. Guthrie's reminiscing is all done with a light touch, "Good thing it's just a movie," he says. "In real life things worked out a lot better." Of note, the track and zoom shot of Alice and the old church at the end of the film was, at the time, the longest in film history. MGM's DVD offers the never-before-seen R-rated version of the film that includes a couple of nude scenes that were not part of the theatrical release. Good widescreen transfer (1.85:1), Dolby 2.0. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Mark Bourne

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