Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.3: Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 84/A-

There’s a famous anecdote about how Martin Scorsese was hired for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore where he meets Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn wanted a director with a sense of grit to keep Alice from being another corny melodrama, and she was impressed with Scorsese’s Mean Streets. She asked him what he knew about women, to which he replied, “Nothing, but I’d like to learn.” It’s a good story, but it’s also indicative of why Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is so memorable- it’s a combination of intellectual curiosity and sensitivity with an expressive, powerful sensibility. It’s what happens when seemingly disparate elements come together and form a cohesive whole.

Alice Hyatt (Burstyn) leaves a small town in New Mexico with her smartass son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) after her boor of a husband dies in an accident. She has dreams of being a singer in California, but her financial situation forces her to stop in Arizona, first in Phoenix, then, after an encounter with an abusive lover (Harvey Keitel), in Tucson, where she gets a job as a waitress. Alice finds a new support system with Flo (Diane Ladd), her tough-talking co-worker, and David (Kris Kristofferson), a local rancher whom she falls in love with. But Alice has dreams, and love might have to meet her on her own terms.

It’s easy to see why Burstyn wanted a tougher sensibility on set, as this could easily be saccharine, forgettable stuff. But just like he did with Mean Streets, Scorsese is able to borrow from different parts of film history and mix them together into something altogether new. The director takes the romanticism and longing of the old “women’s pictures” of William Wyler, Douglas Sirk, and Max Ophuls and blends them with the more natural work of Elia Kazan and John Cassavetes.

The film opens with a homage to The Wizard of Oz, shot through a blood-red filter that gives a feeling of death and entrapment as a young Alice sings to herself and promises to make it as a singer. It’s an odd scene, and it plays as a little contrived, but it’s also visually dynamic, and its relative silence and stillness plays as a great counterpoint to the next scene, a flash forward 27 years to Alice’s home in small-town New Mexico. Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way to Memphis” blares on the soundtrack to an incredible dolly shot that eventually cranes down to Alice’s home and dissolves to a shot of Burstyn, framed just by her window.

It’s an exciting introduction, but also serves to show that she hasn’t gotten out, and her kid, who’s blasting Mott the Hoople kid, looks just as trapped. Scorsese follows that up with a contentious dinner between Alice, Tommy, and her ornery husband Don that plays like a Cassavetes version of a classic melodrama- a woman suffers silently in quiet desperation under a dominating husband, but it’s been brought down from the heightened world of classic melodrama into something more immediate. That mixture of styles is absolutely intoxicating- we’re in the hands of a director who knows the language of cinema and how to exploit it to its fullest potential.

What’s especially great is that Scorsese knows when it makes the most sense to use a heightened style and when to strip everything down. Two key scenes that show this: in the first, Alice has just come home from her husband’s funeral, and the camera again pulls up to a window, closed, trapping her in. She sits at the piano and plays the melancholy standard “Where or When”, and the camera cuts inside, panning around her. It’s deeply sad, but the freeness to the camera is exciting. Alice isn’t tied down anymore, and as the camera goes through a different window, an open window, the feeling of opportunity and dreams reignited is unmistakable.

It’s a romantic scene, and it stands in stark contrast to a later one, after Alice learns that her new lover, Ben (Keitel), is married. Up to this point, Ben has been a charming cowboy type, but when his wife comes to Alice’s house to tell her the truth, we see a much nastier side as Ben breaks into Alice’s home, beats his wife, and threatens to hit Alice. Scorsese shoots the whole scene with a handheld camera, which adds to the immediacy of a terrifying moment in Alice’s life.

It helps that Scorsese is just about the best director of actors who ever picked up a camera. Nearly every part is perfectly cast: Keitel as the initially charming, then vicious Ben; Diane Ladd (in an Oscar-nominated turn) as Alice’s sweetly profane co-worker; young Jodie Foster as Tommy’s delinquent tomboy friend; Kris Kristofferson as a man with a perfect mixture of ruggedness and sensitivity. Scorsese especially deserves praise for getting such a natural performance out of young Alfred Lutter. Part of the reason why Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore doesn’t feel sappy is because of how believable the parent-child dynamic is. Lutter never feels too precious. At different points, he’s a charming smartass, a pest (Scorsese reportedly took the character’s nonsensical dog joke from a long, drawn-out joke Lutter kept trying to explain to him), or a total brat.

But the film ultimately belongs to Burstyn, who won an Oscar for Best Actress in a very crowded year (competition: Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence). Burstyn’s performance is without vanity- she’s willing to push Alice’s annoyance with her offspring to places that could seem unsympathetic (“If you ask me that one more time, I’m going to beat you to death”), to look put-upon without being a saint. That she also manages to be romantic without being a pushover is central- the whole film is about Alice struggling to find her own independence, and Burstyn’s mixture of toughness and fragility is perfect.

Scorsese said that he didn’t know anything about women, but loneliness and the sense of being trapped by societal expectations are universal ideas, and Scorsese channels those personal themes into Alice’s story. In the early scenes, Alice tries to please her husband only to come up short next to an unfeeling man. Later on, she’s she’s forced to deal with sexist bosses (“Turn around? I don’t sing with my ass”) or take a service job because she doesn’t have other work experience. She’s limited by the world she lived in, just like Charlie in Mean Streets. Scorsese understands people, and that’s what’s important.

That said, this is Scorsese’s chance to get to know and understand women better, and to some degree that’s an arc that compliments Alice’s search for independence. Alice is first stuck with a man who barely talks to her and rules over his house with an iron fist. Her later relationship with Keitel’s character is even worse, as he threatens to hit her after she asks him to calm down. She’s constantly stuck with men who don’t understand women, and even when she meets a decent man in Kristofferson, there are problems.

A key scene shows her bratty son treating Kristofferson like garbage, but when Kristofferson snaps and hits Tommy, we’re instantly thrown against his side. It’s another man using might as right, even in a case where the kid did need to be reprimanded, and she can’t take it. And that’s what makes Kristofferson’s final scene with Alice so moving. He offers to sell his ranch in order to be with her when she moves out to California to pursue her dream. She’s taken off-guard (Kristofferson reportedly improvised this, to great effect), and even though she does decide to stay in Tucson, it doesn’t feel like a cop-out. Finally, there’s a man who’s willing to change for her, to better himself for her. It’s another romance, but it’s romance on her terms, something that she never thought she’d have. It’s one of the most optimistic endings in Scorsese’s oeuvre, and better yet, it’s earned.

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