Scorsese's 'Alice' Through The Looking Glass
The director has finally hit his stride. [1/16/2023]
Reviewing Scorsese: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
The phrase “movie magic” has become a dismissive phrase of praise rather than a genuine compliment to a film. You’ll often hear it applied to special effects that the speaker doesn’t understand, but that’s tangential to its real purpose. Movie magic happens when, for a moment, a film thinks and feels for you, not just living in your head but being your brain. We associate this feeling with special effects because when a particular one of those seems so effortless that we accept it, even the layman among us then can double back and ask “How did they do that?” Of course, the terrifying inhabitants of Jurassic Park, the lush landscapes of Pandora in the Avatar films, and Buster Keaton’s iconic house-falling stunt in Steamboat Bill Jr. all possess pixie dust in their own way. But magic spouts like a fountain when there’s something more subtle in the filmmaking, on a storytelling or emotional level, that doesn’t even register at a first glance because you’re already feeling it by the time you see and hear it.
Martin Scorsese’s fourth feature, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is movie magic. The director’s effortless camera makes an epic out of the story of a newly single mother struggling with the responsibilities of independence. Magician Scorsese can pull romance from mundanity with just a wave of his camera, causing the seemingly rough-edged down to earth narrative about what it’s like to be a woman searching for herself to feel like a storybook. We’re introduced to Alice as a young girl on the farm, shot with such prominence of red to evoke simultaneously the sepia tone of Dorothy’s Kansas and the fires of hell. The little girl here thinks of her home as more of the latter and swears to take her life by its horns, only for the frame of the movie itself to shrink away like a memory far in the past.
In the deceptively less stylized present, Alice has become a mother and wife to a man who doesn’t seem to love her or her preteen Tommy. When a sudden auto accident kills her husband, Alice packs up her child and heads toward her hometown in hopes of finding a job as a singer, a dream of hers that she can now attempt to fulfill since she isn’t married. Along the way, she tries to find work and is hit with the hard realities of undoing a life lived dependent upon a husband.
Although the Oscar-nominated screenplay provides a weightlifter’s backbone, it’s immediately clear that the Oscar-winning performance of Ellen Burstyn created Alice. Her plucky attitude is a subtext in what she says, but it is Burstyn who understands her odd balance of capability and naivety. Range feels like a given in a story like this; you have to be funny, sad, furious, and afraid just from the premise. But Burstyn keeps everything compatible. The tone and looks she offers her son when she speaks to him explain so much about the lip he speaks back. By the film’s all-timer credits, you will feel you understand her story like you do Cinderella’s, but with much more thorough characterization.
That is Alice’s balancing act. Alongside his swaying camera (the filmmaker’s trademark; the shot of two people talking that seems to rock from side to side to the rhythm of the conversation), Scorsese finds new ways to make these moments that could be so small and mundane feel like the world is ending, knowing that for Alice, it is. Although his blocking and composition are usually natural enough, the filmmaker has chosen to make moving pictures rather than beautiful frames; there is emotion in his motion. Note the Gone With The Wind-like spin when Alice finally embraces her bearded man for the first time; we’re centered on her, but get a good look at the beautiful landscape around her as we hear rushing gales push through their hair. She wants to be in a movie, and Scorsese does her this kindness when appropriate.
Of Ebert’s review, I have very little to say except “ditto’. Although he mentions Scorsese a decent amount, he seems more enamored with the script and performances of Burstyn, Alfred Lutter as Tommy, Kris Kristofferson as one love interest, and the returning Harvey Keitel as another. Like me, he was wary to comment on social implications, recognizing this film as not about that and praising the risk and power of making a film like a parable.
The movie… belongs somewhere outside ideology, maybe in the area of contemporary myth and romance. There are scenes in which we take Alice and her journey perfectly seriously, there are scenes of harrowing reality, and then there are other scenes (including some hilarious passages in a restaurant where she waits on tables) where Scorsese edges into slight, cheerful exaggeration. There are times, indeed, when the movies seems less about Alice than it does about the speculations and daydreams of a lot of women about her age, who identify with the liberation of other women, but are unsure on the subject of themselves (Ebert 37).
This seems for the first time to be Scorsese realizing what he will best do later on in his career with his culture-defining movies like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and even The Wolf of Wall Street. This is the first time the director will make one of his now iconic fairy tales for adults, taking on serious subjects with a pop touch, a scintillating emotional camera, and a sprinkle of movie magic.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967)
Mean Streets (1973)
Boxcar Bertha (1972)
This Friday check your inboxes for my list of the Best Films of 2022! And of course tune in Monday for the next Scorsese review in his filmography. We’re tackling a big one, the film that will ask us, the audience, the question, “Are looking at me?”
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