Jul 22, 2013

Alice's Restaurant: Gay Subtexts in a Hippie Classic

On Thanksgiving Day 1965, Arlo Guthrie, the 18-year old son of folksinger Woody Guthrie, offered to haul a load of garbage to the dump for his friends, Ray and Alice Brock, who ran a restaurant/hippie commune in rural Massachusetts.  He was arrested and fined for littering, then conscripted into military service, but rejected because he had a "criminal record."

He memorialized the event in a song, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" (1967), which became a counterculture classic and the cornerstone of his career.  The 1969 movie version, Alice's Restaurant, encapsulates the gay promise and anxiety of the hippie generation.

Transforming a 20 minute monologue into a 2-hour movie requires a lot of padding, so director Arthur Penn adds endless scenes of hippies dancing, singing, and saying things like "We have what we need!  We don't need anything else!"

And, at the beginning, lots of scenes that imply that Arlo is gay.

He experiences homophobic harassment due to his long hair.  He rejects several women's advances, and apparently invites male friend Roger (Geoff Outlaw) into his bed.  The landlady refers to them as "friends" with a disgust that usually implies "lover."

But then, as if worried that they might be going too far, Roger vanishes (to reappear later).  Arlo begins sleeping with women, and gets a girlfriend.  There's still a gay subtext, but int involves hippie commune leader Ray (James Broderick)  aggressively courting troubled heroin addict Shelly (Michael McClanathan) -- their grabbing and pawing has to be seen to be believed -- which causes Alice (Patricia Quinn) endless jealousy.

While Ray is watching a film of Shelly, Alice literally stands in front of the screen to distract him.  She also seduces Shelly to "get even."

(By the way, this isn't Michael McClanathan.  It's Daniel Garth, star of Any Body, Any Way (1968), Michael's first movie.)

Alice's Restaurant contains a lot of male semi-nudity, including an extended scene in the induction center, with dozens of recruits wandering around in their underwear.  There's even some homoerotic frolicking, as Arlo waits with the other inductees who may be "too immoral to kill babies and destroy villages."

There's a line in the original song in which Arlo suggests that you can get out of the draft by singing "Alice's Restaurant" to the psychiatrist.  Or two of you can sing it together, and he'll think you're both "faggots" and let you out.   Another example of the hippie anxiety over potential gay identity.  But during the 1990s, in live performances, he changed the line to protest the homophobic "don't ask, don't tell" policy.