Alice’s Restaurant (1969)
★★ / ★★★★
Not wanting to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, Arlo (Arlo Guthrie) decides to attend university. His enrollment does not last long, however, after he gets into a brawl in an eatery. His unconventional appearance and approaches do not fit into the image of the school anyway so he is kicked out. Arlo moves to a town in Massachusetts to see his friends Alice (Patricia Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick) who have just moved into a deconsecrated church. The couple allows fellow hippies to stay there and soon enough an unorthodox community begins to form.
Inspired by Arlo Guthrie’s song and based on the screenplay by Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn, “Alice’s Restaurant” works as a series of amusing and random sketches because it focuses on a specific counterculture, but it quickly falls apart when it turns serious and attempts to wring out sadness from the audience.
Because of its freewheeling style, the colorful moments pop out even more strongly. What are considered to be “throwaway scenes” in pictures that have a defined narrative structure somehow manage to complement each other here because each character is slightly left of center. One of the scenes that stands out involves a purported seventeen-year-old girl who invites Arlo into her resting area because she seems to have a habit of sleeping with men who might become successful artists in the near future. Arlo shows reluctance to go on and claims that he does not want to catch her cold. The next scene is just as pointless and interesting.
I was most curious about Shelley (Michael McClanathan), an ex-heroin addict who comes to live in the commune. The ticks in his limbs and the sadness in his eyes drew me in; if there is one strand that requires an appropriate dosage of darkness, it is Shelley’s story. The threat of him going back to his old habits feels real. Shelley does not speak very often, especially about his drug history, but it is obvious that he is need of a friend. Unfortunately, his plight is diluted by the relationship troubles between Alice and Ray.
The fights they have are confusing at times because it feels like there is a missing scene or two that may hint at the reason why they are angry or frustrated with one another. I guess since they live together, fighting is natural. Still, it feels too broad. From the looks on the actors’ faces, their characters’ unhappiness hints at something more specific. As a result, when the couple argues and Shelley is in the background, it is best to block out the nonsensical dialogue and observe how Shelley is reacting to the confrontation.
Directed by Arthur Penn, perhaps the most important component that makes “Alice’s Restaurant” sort of work is the casting of Guthrie as himself. Because the events are more or less based upon his own experiences, he provides a certain relaxed atmosphere every time he is in a frame. His character is so at ease about everything, even when he gets in trouble with the law. I guess I liked watching him because I wanted to know more about his nature.
Four Friends (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
Danilo (Craig Wasson), David (Michael Huddleston), Tom (Jim Metzler), and Georgia (Jodi Thelen) were best friends. All three guys wanted to win the girl’s affections but she had big dreams of making it as a star. We saw the story through Danilo’s eyes, a first-generation American from Yugoslavia, as the four graduated high school and things began to change drastically in the 1960s. Written by Steve Tesich and directed by Arthur Penn, “Four Friends” could have a great story about friendship and dreams, at times the two being mutually exclusive, but I wasn’t convinced it highlighted the parallels between the changing friendship and the changing politics with enough clarity. The weakness was we didn’t really know who David, Tom, and Georgia were. We knew David was afraid of becoming just like his mortician father, Tom was charming and athletic, and Georgia had a flair for the dramatic but such were surface characteristics. We learned most about Danilo and his feelings of wanting to become more than his working-class parents. The Yugoslavian father (Miklos Simon) was very old-fashioned and having such a strong paternal figure shaped Danilo’s many decisions between settling down and yearning to be free. It was interesting that he went off to college believing that he had dreams to pursue but he later realized that perhaps the main reason he went away was to avoid being with Georgia and the supposed friendly competition among his mates. Since the title suggested it was about a friendship of four, I was curious to know how the other three felt about Danilo when he went away. There were suggestions that he rarely visited. Danilo’s mother and his friends took great pleasure in watching Danilo on television when he appeared on academic game shows. Although shot in a somewhat distant manner, I noticed the way their eyes fixated on the screen. It was as if the screen reflected their own ambitions, once within the realm of possibility but they knew such dreams were now out of reach. Furthermore, in the amusing wedding scene, which was really sad in its core, Danilo wasn’t even aware which one of his friends were getting married. The scene was played for laughs, especially with Danilo’s very embarrassed roommate (Reed Birney), but it underlined how out-of-touch our protagonist was with people who he considered his best friends. It would have been interesting to know how the other three assessed the situation. But what I liked about “Four Friends” was, even though we didn’t know each of them fully, the dynamics of friendship among the four were always changing. I believed their evolution from idealistic teenagers who wanted to accomplish everything to more secure adults. If it had spent more time exploring the other three friends’ lives and if the political backdrop had been more pronounced, it would have had a much needed surge of energy.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two charismatic strangers named Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (Warren Beatty) teamed up and decided to rob banks in the Depression-era 1930s. Their adventures eventually led them to take in other people including C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman), and Blanche Barrow (Estelle Parsons). I’ve heard a lot about this movie via references from other pictures and television shows so I expected a lot from it. I have to say that it more than impressed because although it was initially about criminals who simply wanted some sort of excitement in their lives, we eventually really got to know them such as how they felt toward each other, their own insecurities and their realization that they wanted to leave the life of crime and start over. In under two hours, Arthur Penn, the director was able to helm a movie with sympathetic characters (when they shouldn’t be because they’ve killed people, especially considering when the film was released) and come full circle when it comes to the story. I also liked the dialogue and the passion in the body language of the actors, notably Dunaway. At times, I would pay attention more on what she was doing instead of what she was saying–something that I often catch myself doing when I’m conversing with someone. So I consider that a very good thing because it means she’s established a bridge between the character and the audience. Lastly, I enjoyed that this picture tried to be more than a series of action sequences. It actually had humor–especially when Gene Wilder appeared on screen–and real dramatic weight, which adds another layer to its substance. I think “Bonnie and Clyde” is rightfully considered as one of the greatest American films because even though it was undoubtedly violent, it really was more about the drama in wanting to escape situations with increasing amount of gravity. Pretty much every minute was efficient and I was fascinated with what was going to happen with the characters even though I knew of their fates. If one hasn’t seen “Bonnie and Clyde,” one should make it a priority. My only regret is that I hadn’t seen it sooner.