Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Undercurrents of Feeling
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is in a number of ways a classically told film. Less a director's project than a writer and actress led one, it started out as a script by Robert Getchell that was offered to Ellen Bustyn, who had a hit as the mum in The Exorcist. The producer John Calley asked who she wanted to direct, and she replied, "I'd like somebody young and exciting and new, somebody who's just coming up." Martin Scorsese had recently made Mean Streets, and seemed exactly the sort of director to give energy and movement to a staid story about a woman and child who take to the open road after Alice's husband dies. This was a potentially sentimental tale of a woman looking for love and coping with a young son; could Scorsese inject some ferocity into the project?
Scorsese had thus far directed only three films -Who's that Knocking at my Door, Boxcar Bertha and Mean Streets - but he obviously already had a recognized style. When Burstyn told Peter (The Last Picture Show) Bogdanovich that Scorsese was directing Alice...Bogdanovich replied, "tell him not to move his camera so much". Burstyn never passed on the advice, and Scorsese's camera is as mobile as ever; at every opportunity Scorsese undercuts the potentially static message of a woman seeking love by a style that plays up the aggressive undercurrent in masculine behaviour. All three men in Alice's life have a violent streak, and Scorsese's approach is generally at least as alive to male threat as female sensitivity. In one early shot we see Alice's husband partially seen, lying on the bed with his head out of frame, while their child, Tommy, blares out Mott the Hoople. He aggressively tells Alice to get the boy to shut up, and a couple of scenes later accuses Tommy of swapping the sugar for salt, and that is why his coffee tastes so bitter. He loses his temper and Tommy runs off, with his dad telling him he'll sort him out when he eventually returns home.
After the husband's death in a motorway accident, Alice finds work in a bar playing the piano as she embarks on her new life in a new town. Alice takes up with Harvey Keitel's Ben, who quickly seduces her, and almost as promptly reveals a psychotic streak. A woman visits and tells Alice that she's Ben's wife, and he breaks into the motel apartment and threatens his spouse with a knife before then threatening Alice. Alice and Tommy quickly leave town. Even the laid back rancher that she falls in love with halfway through the film proves capable of aggression. As David (Kris Kristofferson) tries to teach Tommy the guitar at the ranch house, Tommy gives up and petulantly puts on a record that David whips off the player and throws across the room, before slapping the boy's bottom.
With Ben and David's moments of aggression, Scorsese does exactly what Bogdanovich advised against. In the first moments of the scene before Ben arrives looking for his wife, Scorsese creates a sense of menace as the camera follows Ben's wife and Alice into the kitchen in handheld wide angles. When Ben hammers on the door the camera proves still more frenetic as Scorsese plays up rather than plays down the violence. This emphasizing of the violent is especially so in David's understandable irritation with Tommy. A fairly minor domestic tiff (compared to the one with Ben) is given pretty much the same aesthetic treatment as the earlier one as Scorsese's camera again offers wide-angles and darting movements to capture not only aggression in the characters, but almost aggression in situations.
Scorsese has always been a director attuned to the underlying violence in everyday life and if we're wondering where Tommy's strop may have come from, we might think of the preceding scene where Tommy comes into the sitting room and Alice and David are lying on the couch. As Tommy pesters them Alice prods Tommy with her bare foot as she pushes him out of the room: a playful moment perhaps from her point of view, but a bruising one from the boy's.
There are even hints of aggression elsewhere. In one scene Alice applies for a singing job and the boss tells her to turn round. Alice says she sings with her mouth not her ass and quickly leaves. In another moment Alice breaks down in front of a bar owner, and the bar owner gives her a chance to audition for him. She asks him to make a request and when he offers one she says she doesn't know it. He irritably wonders why she asked him at all.
All this is played out within the context of loosely a woman's picture and a romantic drama. Robert Phillip Kolker in The Cinema of Loneliness notes "in a tender scene between the two women [Alice and her co-worker Flo] that takes place in a bathroom", "that she is both afraid of not pleasing a husband and unable to live without a man," and believes this "indicates that [Alice] remains burdened by old fantasies and cultural baggage, and points as well to the fact that the film will ultimately have to recuperate the old order."
But what is finally interesting about the film - and why Scorsese's input proves vital - is that though it coincides with developments in the feminist movement in the late sixties and early seventies, its questioning of sexual politics doesn't reside in a caricaturing of the masculine (no matter the husband's broad portrait of a man who expects his wife do everything around the house), but as an exploration of aggression within the possibilities of tenderness. Critics like Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls quote Scorsese saying he was looking for an unhappy ending - "I'm an artist - I'm gonna have an unhappy ending" the director said. The 'unhappiness' of a film, its artistic single-mindedness, needn't come through the ending, though. It can course through the work and allow any happy ending to contain ambiguity. There is so much male tension running through Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore that any optimism is inevitably tempered. Alice may end up with David, but David's capable of modest aggression; and Alice to over-reaction when she walks out after his outburst. There are clear reasons why it might not work.
Scorsese's oeuvre often seems like an illustration of Konrad Lorenz's claim in his book On Aggression that "intra-specific aggression is millions of years older than personal friendship and love...Thus intra-specific aggression can certainly exist without its counterpart, love, but conversely there is no love without aggression." It is this sort of insight that runs throughout Scorsese's work, and few American filmmakers capture more astutely violence within love than Scorsese: New York, New York, Raging Bull and Casinoare all predicated on domestic hell, and it is this reality Scorsese captures in a film that may be superficially a woman's picture, and a film with feminist leanings as it searches out a woman's attempt at liberation, but contains within it the deeper problems of the battle of the sexes where one can't pretend it is isn't a battle. Thus when Germaine Greer notes in The Madwoman's Underclothes "there has come into existence, chiefly in America, a breed of men who claim to be feminists...they write books called The Liberated Man and Male Chauvinism: How it Works", she nevertheless views them with suspicion. She's far more interested in films like Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, with its exploration of the "utter inability of either sex to comprehend the other." "Bunuel is a feminist because he finds the sexual conflict to be radical, tragic and overwhelming - not simply a peripheral question".
Following Greer's logic, and our analysis of the violence that proves vital to the film, Scorsese isn't only an artist because he has given an edge to the woman's picture, but also usefully feminist in that he doesn't assume the film's purpose is to offer a picture of a liberated woman, especially, but to explore the problem of a woman who can't readily live without a man, and where men can leave women vulnerable on numerous levels - and especially that of simple physical fear in their presence. It may seem that Alice overreacts when David slaps her son on the bottom, and we cannot pretend there are plot mechanics involved in this over-reaction. It allows for the temporary rupture of the couple all the better to bring them together for the emotionally wrought finale. But we may recall the line she offers during her argument with David - about men who hit children always managing to justify themselves, a line which presumably echoes back to her own husband's behaviour - and recall also how she shivered and shook in front of Ben after he had quite literally kicked his own wife out of Alice's motel room.
It is the film's awareness of what is at stake on the fundamental level of aggression in all its manifestations that makes Alice a liberating picture: less the happy ending than the unhappy moments that move Alice towards self-realisations. Burstyn said that what she liked about Scorsese's earlier work was that "he knows how to allow actors to be real"; and she noted that what Getchell's script needed was "the opposite of a polish. It needs roughing up. It was written like a Rock Hudson-Doris Day movie." Here artistic integrity can meet a sort of exploratory feminism over a militant or politically correct feminism, as the film wonders not so much how a woman can achieve personal liberation, but what sort of aggression is out there in the world that a woman has to deal with in the process of trying to find a new life for herself.
We may have concentrated chiefly on the violence Scorsese's film utilises, but there is also a low-key sense of threat from the world at large as well. This is a woman not only vulnerable to male aggression, but to unemployment, homelessness and professional rejection also. Scorsese focuses on the testosterone, which is if you like the active nervous system, but he is also attentive to the passive nervous system also. Whether showing Alice auditioning for a singing job, trying to get the hang of waitressing, or tearfully leaving her friend behind after Alice and Tommy leave town near the beginning of the film, Scorsese gives us "women's picture emotions", contained within the context of male violence and a world of general threat. Critics like Kolker may believe the film's sense of observation comes to an end when she meets David and the film falls "back on conventional elements", but Scorsese has done enough to call into question the conventional elements thus far to make any conventions utilised carry sub-textual complexities.
It may seem perverse to say that a film starring an actress who hired the director, and where numerous women were involved in the production, including Marcia Lucas as editor and Toby Carr Rafelson doing production design, is never more feminist than when showing male violence and female vulnerability in all its manifestations, but what counts isn't always the optimism of the message, so much as the exploration of the problem. Even Kolker acknowledges that "in its time, it stood, with all its flaws, as an indication that American film could come to terms with woman characters in a way other than the conventional modes of melodrama or the condescension that has remained Hollywood's interpretation of "woman's liberation"". Scorsese is one of the key chroniclers of masculinity in American film, but, taking into account Greer's further claims in relation to August Strindberg, that "by contrast with the implacable, eternal war of the sexes, which cannot find truce until our civilization is completely changed or completely destroyed, the petty outrage perpetrated by male on male for ephemeral political motives is banal", Scorsese is politically more attuned than many a filmmaker interested in 'big' politics. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore may have an apparently happy ending, but a happier one surely would be where Alice had several options to hand, instead of a lifeline courtesy of the albeit very decent David. The film captures that ambivalence as it explores a woman's manifold vulnerabilities in a world of mainly male tensions.
© Tony McKibbin