Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Robert Getchell
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jodie Foster, and Harvey Keitel
Cinematography by Kent L. Wakeford
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore opens with a flashback that reveals Alice to be a foul-mouthed, ambitious, and independent young girl from the midwest – an image of her that informs the entire subsequent narrative. The scenes of the past feature monochromatic red light, smooth camera motions, and consistently rhythmic cuts. The transition to Alice’s present day is made with similar tracking shots and editing, but with naturalistic outdoor lighting and the briefly startling entrance of contemporary 70’s rock music (Mott The Hoople’s All The Way from Memphis), which continues as a motif throughout the piece. The husband’s first line, “whatever you say, you’re the cook”, is disembodied by Scorsese’s framing of his chest in the doorway, his head blocked by the wall. From what little we learn of Alice’s husband, he is a masculine torso with few human traits. Alice’s subservience stands in contrast with the girl we glimpsed briefly in the opening flashback, but over the course of the film that girl begins to reveal herself.
The first dinner scene with the family, which erupts into chaos, is shot in a gritty handheld style, with quick pans and jerky movements highlighting bits and pieces of the action. The next dinner scene reverts back to the film’s usual technique of angle/reverse angle editing, and the scene itself is a more conventional vision of suburban discontent, full of polite nodding and sublimated rage. Interestingly, it’s the apathy of the scene that causes Alice’s first (of many) crying scenes, which provokes the husband’s first and last gesture of tenderness towards his wife. Ironically, only after screenwriter Robert Getchell has humanized the husband does Alice proclaim that she wishes she could live without a man. Almost as divine punishment, she immediately receives a phone call informing her of her husband’s death.
Alice and her friend’s emotional goodbye is undercut by their sons’ eye-rolling and Tommy’s immediate complaint of “are we there yet” less than a minute after departing. Ellen Burstyn’s deserved the Oscar for her performance here, but Alice’s persistent bouts of tears in the presence of men seemed to belie the film’s insistence that she has rekindled the defiant spark of her youth. Her relationships with men are deliberately stereotyped, and since such relationships exist in reality there’s no reason that they should be avoided out of political correctness. Yet the scenes that make the film so moving are never the ones involving Alice’s men; instead, it’s the mother-son dynamic that really carries the story. Tommy and Alice’s banter is so uniquely dysfunctional, hilarious, grating, and tender all at once that it feels universally human due to its idiosyncratic specificity. The colors and melodrama evoke a Douglas Sirk drama and Alice even references Lana Turner while explaining how she learned to kiss, but what makes Alice so much more human than a Lana Turner character is how flawed and messy her relationship with Tommy is, and how much he gets under her skin. There are signs that Tommy might grow into the kind of man who has hurt Alice in the past, and Scorsese never shies away from the dark side of Tommy’s frequently-cited “weirdness”. In the end, Alice gets her new lover David to accept her on her own terms, but their reconciliation is far from satisfying. Instead, it’s the extremely compressed deep focus shot of Alice and Tommy walking away from the camera that provides a more meaningful resolution as the final shot of the film. The pair have merged with their environment in a way that contrasts with their patterns of entrapment and isolation. With Tommy’s odd tomboy friend and Alice’s fun-loving female companion from the diner, they have learned to navigate this mess of a world with a certain measure of assurance.