A friend wrote the following last night: “There you are in Vietnam while Thanksgiving Day is underway in the States. Which offers a faint touch of irony if you weave in memories of Arthur Penn‘s Alice’s Restaurant. Arlo Guthrie‘s original ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ song, released in ’67, is about a couple of guys dumping garbage ‘by the side of the road’ on Thanksgiving Day back in ’65. The song became an anti-war anthem because it told about Guthrie’s rejection from the military service in Vietnam due to littering,” etc.
My response: “So it’s Thanksgiving and I’m in Vietnam and…where’s the irony again? I don’t feel tied to or particularly moved by what happened 43 or 45 or 47 years ago…sorry. My life began with having kids in the late ’80s and then getting the online column in the late ’90s and into the aughts.
“‘Alice’s Restaurant‘, a 1967 ‘anti-stupidity’ song (in Guthrie’s words) that equated petty, scolding, conservative small-town values with kneejerk support for the scorched-earth ravaging of Vietnam, was becoming a huge hit, and therefore…I don’t feel it. The actual garbage-dumping incident happened in ’65, the song came out in ’67 and the film was released in ’69.
“Did you know Guthrie has become a registered Republican and a Ron Paul Libertarian?
“It’s cool to spot M. Emmet Walsh in the trailer as a barking military guy during the draft-board scene, but the green values and attitudes of 2012 are prompting me, 45 years after the song, to ask a question. What’s so cool and people-friendly and folksy charming about dumping a truckload of garbage in the Stockbridge woods?
“The song and film versions happened before the first Earth Day in 1970, and it’s obviously a different world now. Dumping waste and polluting nature’s garden…isn’t that what conniving corporations do, dumping their toxic wastes in rivers and polluting the water table, etc.? Same basic instinct. Corporations can’t be bothered to follow rules and regs about respecting nature, and neither could Arlo and his pally (who looked like Kim Hunter in Planet of the Apes).
“On top of which Alice’s Restaurant was not, in my recollection, that terrific a film. A passable, good-natured social satire aimed at a very easy mark. Arthur Penn was peaking big-time when he made it. He’d been going great guns all through the ’60s and would next make the respectable Little Big Man, and then enjoy a relatively fertile and satisfying ’70s, but Alice’s Restaurant was a meh. It sought to toe the line by portraying local authorities in Stockbridge (‘Officer Obie‘) as metaphors for nearly all people in authority, which is to say petty, sour of spirit and asserting a gruff, kneejerk support of traditional apple-pie, World-War-II-generation American values and a loathing of all things long hair-ish, which was to say lefty, communal, pot-smoking and anti-Vietnam War.
“A boilerplate generation-gap movie, in short, with Penn doing what he could to make it into a cultural touchstone film (as the song had been), and not quite getting there. The song was enough.”