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American original

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  January 29, 2008

The lost Penn movie from those years is ALICE’S RESTAURANT (Sunday at 3 pm) — unless you count “THE HIGHTEST” (Saturday at 7 pm), the extraordinary high-jump sequence he directed for the 1972 Tokyo Olympics documentary Visions of Eight. Alice’s Restaurant was inspired by Arlo Guthrie’s famous anti-draft talking blues, and it stars Guthrie, but his character’s comic experiences at the draft board take up only a small portion of the film’s running time. The movie is a devastating coming-of-age picture set at the moment when the optimism of the ’60s has begun to fall away. What’s remarkable about the movie is that it was made during that very moment, in 1969, so it has the rare quality of being simultaneously experiential and reflective. I can’t think of another American movie like it: even Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love, which addresses the same kind of disenchantment, came out four years later, and Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, released in 1975, was a period piece set on the eve of Nixon’s election. In Alice’s Restaurant, Arlo is one of a group of young people who come under the sway of a pair of hippies: their high-school librarian, Alice (Pat Quinn), a true free spirit, and her husband, Ray (James Broderick), whose overzealousness and proprietary impulses have a way of poisoning everything. (The performances by Quinn and Broderick are among the glories of this period of American film acting.) The failure of their commune represents what went wrong with the ’60s; when Arlo and his girlfriend walk away from them in the final moments of the movie, Penn’s camera lingers on Alice’s forlorn face — an image for a cameo — and you feel you’re seeing the last vestiges of something he had captured just two vital years earlier with Bonnie and Clyde. The arc of those two back-to-back pictures is wide indeed.

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