Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I'm Thankful For the Lightning House/Doll's Lair Thanksgiving Swap!

At the risk of sounding sappier than The Christmas Shoes, there are a lot of treasures that make me grateful this Thanksgiving season. Chief among them are some of the joys I get on a daily basis from blogging (or .comming, if you will) and chief among THAT (there's a very complicated hierarchy going on here) are the people I've met through this wacky activity called writing Internet reviews of horror films. Thusly is it my pleasure to revive the monthly(ish) movie swaps with one of my favorite bloggers and all around dudes, Zack of the Lightning Bug’s Lair. For the Bugg, I recommended the bizarre (and conveniently streaming) Bad Boy Bubby, while Zack went much more seasonally appropriate. In his words:
"When I think about Thanksgiving there's a few things that always spring to mind, jellied cranberry sauce, the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade (which I preferred to call the Macy's day parade when I was a kiddo), and Arlo Guthrie’s Alice's Restaurant. I was first introduced to Guthrie’s tale in song form when I was probably six or seven (the more explicit movie which Emily is looking at I didn’t see until later), and his story of a hippy Thanksgiving, the debacle of garbage disposal, and the draft, never fails to make me laugh. The same goes for the movie. While it does move slow in some parts, director Arthur Penn captured the spirit of the song, the somber mood among the hippies as the Sixties drew to a close, and an honest look at an era of protest that doesn’t seem all that distant now. So this Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for so many things, friends like Emily, my family, and all the people who support horror writing, but I also want to give thanks for Alice’s Restaurant where you can 
get anything you want (exceptin’ Alice). Happy Thanksgiving, folks. "

I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Quick Plot: Arlo is a young musician with floppy anti-establishment hair but a pleasantly laid back demeanor. When he gets his draft card right square and center of the Vietnam War, he attempts to circumvent service with a college education. When that proves to be a bust, Arlo moves on to visit his friends Alice and Ray, a free-spirited couple opening up a restaurant in a deconsecrated church.

I can't tell you how many times I've walked by or through a decadent cathedral and imaged what a great performance/hangout space it would be. What I didn't know in all this fantasy decorating was that churches had to OFFICIALLY be un-holified in order for that to happen. Not being a Christian, this doesn't bother me from a soul safety point of view or anything, but I must say, doesn't the act itself seem rather, well, UNChristian? As if heathens can move into your architecture, but dangit if they get any leftover good vibes or vampire protection?

Moving on...
Actually, there aren't that many places to move on to. See, Alice's Restaurant is a film about hippies and if there's two things hippies don't generally care for, it's cops and barber shops. But if there's a third thing, then the third would be plot.

And that's kind of fine. This is not a film about growth or destination, but more a string of episodes that follow Arlo and his friends through biker races and Thanksgiving dinners, sort of like a much better version of George Romero’s Knight Riders only with less Renaissance Faire action. There’s minor tension regarding Arlo’s draft card, which ultimately culminates in a rather hilarious (and extremely Catch-22-esque) army physical complete with a giddy psychological exam and surly young M. Emmett Walsh. A subplot regarding Arlo’s recovering heroin addict pal raises some stakes, but the film never wants to commit to any real story or conflict. Since Arlo--not an actor by trade, but a likable presence onscreen--& co. are fun to watch, the movie is too.

Upon rewatching Harold and Maude a few weeks back, I was disappointed at how much I no longer liked the characters. They were selfish and destructive people who put others in harm’s way--or just extreme inconvenience--for no real reason other than that’s what they felt like doing. I worried that I’d feel the same way about Alice’s Restaurant, but I didn’t because these characters--none overly nice or revolutionary or special save for some musical talent--weren’t out to hurt the world. They simply had their own way of life and for the most part, it didn’t have the slightest bit to do with anyone else. When generations of friends sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, you take it as an imperfectly perfect moment for these people at this time. One year later, some might be fighting in Vietnam, others might be dead of an overdose or happily raising children conceived in a haze of pot smoke and burnt pumpkin pie air, but on this particular evening, life is about a good meal with your friends.

I’m sure there’s plenty more to the subtext of Alice’s Restaurant (and no, I’ve not plunged into the 18.5 minute song just yet) and maybe a few years from now, I’ll see Arthur Penn’s film in a very different light. Perhaps because of my current mood--it’s THANKSGIVING for goodness sake--I’m only looking for and at the happiness, of which there’s plenty. Having just seen Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, I don’t need a depressing tale about how ugly the world we live in really is. Not when there are musical interludes and soft satire, free dessert and blind judges. Yes, there’s also unhappy marriage and drug addiction, but the smell of sweet potatoes can cover a whole lot if you’re hungry.

High Points
Alice's Restaurant is a genuinely funny film, often from Guthrie's exaggerated (yet still dry) narration contrasting with the rather calm onscreen action. What keeps it refreshing--at least to me--is that the humor never feels overly mean or anti-establishment for the sake of hating the establishment. 
Your enjoyment of this film will depend in big part on how you feel about folk music. I dig it, so I dug the film and all of its ‘let’s sit back and sing’ moments, but if that type of thing ain’t your cup of cocoa, then you might want to try different brew

Low Points
For the first half or so of the film, we see Arlo spurn the advances of several attractive women, usually with good reason (like the lasses being 14) but also with such detachment that we start to wonder if he's simply asexual. And then a pretty but not overly interesting young lady shows up and it seems to be love. It would have been nice to know what it was about this particular love interest that made Arlo care.

Lessons Learned
Girdles feel funny
Weddings are way more kickass when top hats and blue velvet are invited

There was an awful lot to dig in the 70s
When free food is on the line, a hippie will do almost anything

Town dumps are generally closed on Thanksgiving

I’m not overly familiar with all the backstory involved in the making and reception of Alice’s Restaurant (and that includes the 18 1/2 minute song it’s based on, because if I still haven’t watched the 3 hour Saving Private Ryan, where am I going to find time to listen to an 18 minute song?) but I think the film holds up regardless as both a strangely sweet portrait of friendship, dryly funny satire on the draft, and hauntingly subtle tale of unhappiness. I have the feeling this is a film that will deepen for me with time, one that might mean something different to me five or ten years from now than it did upon first viewing. Time will tell, and I look forward to it.

Don’t forget to hear Zack’s take on Bad Boy Bubby at The Lightning Bug’s Lair, complete with my lawyer talk argument for why it’s kinda sorta almost a little bit a Thanksgiving film. Ride the kangaroo on over!


  1. I wonder what'd happen if someone copied/pasted all of the lyrics of the song onto a comment here, I guess that'd make your blog explode! haha!

    About Bad Boy Bubby, my boss was an actor in that movie! Seriously!

  2. 18.5 minutes???? Most likely!

    And that trivia is insane. Who was he? (hopefully not the cat). I need specifics!

  3. Great review, Em, and I am most pleased that you dug the film. I am surprised that the music nerd in you didn't try out the song to compliment the review. Do check it out sometime. It's a story unto itself, and Arlo is a great storyteller.

    Also blue velvet and top hats ftw!

  4. His name is Bruce Gilbert, he played the guy with the long curly hair.

    And luckily the stuff with the cat wasn't cruel, according to the commentary!

  5. Bugg! I have the song queued up on youtube and will promptly listen. I'm a slacker. Or a hippie. Same thing?

    Chris: I don't specifically remember him, but I still declare the man awesome. And glad to hear about the non-real cat violence. I never got to listen to the commentary, so that's a big relief!

  6. Apparently when the cat was wrapped up in the glad-wrap was the only time it purred on set!

  7. I wonder if he's related to Mookie...

  8. Arlo personifies the hippy vibe like no other and he's about as far from the mean-spirited, cartoon stereotypes in modern day films like Forrest Gump as can be. I felt the film did fine when sticking with the song and focusing on Arlo, but became uneven when it started to follow the other characters especially Ferris Bueller's dad. The commentary track by Arlo is well worth listening to but the song (Alice's Restaurant Massacre) is the wellspring from which everything else flows. It's best listened to on a long walk or drive and is quite entertaining.

  9. I FINALLY listened to the song and enjoyed the heck out if it. And yes, the non-arlo subplots did disrupt the mood a little. I think your criticism seems to be popular, although it didn't bother me quite as much since without them, I think the movie may have been a tad TOO light. Curious to hear the commentary track!