Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was perhaps the most pivotal of all of Martin Scorsese’s classic films – a concise consolidation of everywhere he’d come from, and a propulsion into his cinema future. Appropriately, Robert Getchell’s screenplay also focuses on a character in transition – Alice Hyatt, played by Ellen Burstyn, a New Mexico housewife whose life is turned upside down when her husband unexpectedly dies, leaving her to take care of their son Tommy, played by Alfred Lutter. Alice decides to return to Monterey to resume her earlier career as a singer, but she has two major pitstops along the way – first, in Phoenix, where she enters a brief but tumultuous affair with Ben, a gun assembler played by Harvey Keitel, and then in Tucson, where she enters a more unusual relationship with cowboy David, played by Kris Kristofferson, who she meets in the raucous restaurant where she gets work as a waitress.
The film opens with stylied 1950s-era credits, like the beginning of Blue Velvet, and from there moves to a lurid flashback sequence that gives us a brief glimpse of Alice’s childhood. This sequence fuses the two different registers of The Wizard of Oz, offering an abstracted rural backdrop that is clearly meant to recall the Kansas scenes of Dorothy’s childhood, but overlaying them with a lurid Technicolor brilliance that we only see, in the original film, once she arrives in Oz. Splitting the difference between reality and fantasy, this superb piece of postmodern pastiche suggests that the home life of the Eisenhower era has become the stuff of fantasy now – a mythical cultural object that would only accelerate over the next decade. At one point, Alice observes that “when you’re awake, the things you think come from the dreams you dream,” and her circular diction here suggests that the 1950s suburban dream has now entered a feedback loop where it has no other real point of reference except itself.
This dreamy opening makes the cut to a full screen even more jarring, especially since Scorsese pairs it with the first of many expansive, mobile, establishing shots. This abbreviated first act in New Mexico, which takes place while Alice is still playing the role of wife, escorts us through a suburban absurd in which comedy and tragedy are never far away from each other. Indeed, this tragicomic tone, or dramedic tone, is critical to the film’s restless desire to escape the generic constrictions of suburbia, presented here as a cinematic register as much as an urban phenomenon. When Alice hears about her husband’s untimely death, she happens to be in the midst of a bout of hysterical laughter, which shifts almost imperceptibly to crying, making it difficult to discern how much she misses him, or how much she loved him.
During these early scenes, Scorsese also showcases his most kinetic and frenetic camera movements to date. Like Alice, the camera feels volatile, cooped-up, bursting to break free – and on the cusp of sentience itself. While this hyperactivity is most pronounced inside, as Alice goes about her daily chores, it periodically propels the camera into soaring aerial shots of the surrounding mountains and mesas, as if the lens itself were gulping in great breaths of air, in an effort to envisage the wide world lying just beyond Alice’s circumscribed horizons.
For a brief period, this restless desire is satiated by the first stages of Alice’s road trip, which reimagine the great era of westward expansion as a new cultural migration to West Coast postmodernity. Yet even the calmest moments are quickly couched in a further intensification of Scorsese’s camera, much as the sweeping highway shots are regularly fractured by manic zooms. While the plot here may be more placid on the surface than Mean Streets, it’s nevertheless driven by an even more convulsive sense of space, movement and visual shock.
In large part, that’s due to Alice’s unique trajectory as a single mother and single woman who’s not necessarily looking for love – a more original prospect than a woman who has embraced or rejected love outright. This imbues the spaces in front of her with a real volatility and unpredictability, as the entire Southwest seems to quiver and tremble to prepare her passage, carrying Scorsese’s camera along in its convulsive slipstream. Somehow, and despite the languorous vibe, the camera is in constant motion, accelerating whenever it moves towards or away from Alice. Her singledom and independence is like a force field that New Hollywood doesn’t know how to handle – almost too fugitive and mercurial for Scorsese’s camera, which can only catch her wake, her trace, the places where she doesn’t live anymore.
The film is thus suspended in an exquisitely elastic space between the future Alice is envisaging and the world she’s left behind, producing a remarkably fresh and emergent tonality. Musically, her renditions of the Great American Songbook feel more like a line of flight from that songbook, or a way of fitting these songs to her own flight from romance, since she nearly always opts for awry and atonal versions of these classic tunes. One character describes this as the “wiggle” in her voice, but that atonal “wiggle” is endemic to the film as a whole, rendering the cameos especially surreal – especially Keitel’s appearance as Ben, which climaxes with a bizarre exchange in which he and Alice have nothing more to say to each other than “yes” or “no.” At times, it’s almost like Scorsese has filmed a collection of short stories about the same character, like a hopped-up Raymond Carver transplanted to the Southwest, allowing him to rotate and reimagine Alice’s attributes from situation to situation.
This heightened atonality also keeps the comedy and tragedy in precarious balance, making Alice a genuine tragicomedy right up until the mercurial final shot. New Hollywood hadn’t decided, at the time, whether a single mother was a comic or a tragic figure, and Scorsese oscillates so vertiginously between these two possibilities that he eventually eludes both – or breaks down the preconception that Alice has to be decisively either. It’s similar to the way he breaks down the virgin/whore dichotomy – the same dichotomy, really – in Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, which Alice often recalls in its (and her) sheer experimental audacity.
All this atonal intensity peaks in the third act of film, when Alice takes a waitressing job in Tucson, her last pit stop on the way to Monterey, in a restaurant that forms an echo-chamber for the film’s dissonant energy. Since there’s no place for a singer, Alice takes the job of regular waitress here, so she’s acutely aware of the sound around her, which typically muted, or even vanished altogether, when she performed as a singer. On top of that, however, this is a particularly raucous restaurant, where manhandling waitresses is part of the service. At the start of her first shift, the customers are invited to ogle Alice’s body by her co-worker Florence, played by Diane Ladd, causing a scene then and there before Alice comes home to have a water fight with her son, which quickly escalates to a hysterical pitch in which they’re crying and laughing at the same time, soaking every possible surface in their modest motel.
Scorsese provides a pair of possible trajectories to resolve this peak dissonance, leaving us suspended between the two in the ambiguous closing moments of the film. The first focuses on female friendship and motherhood, and draws on Alice’s healthiest two relationships in the film – with her son and (quite improbably) with Florence, the waitress. Throughout all her travails, Alice rapport with her son is perky and screwy without ever being cutesy, and actually seems to pick up considerably when his father is no longer in the picture. Just as Mean Streets drew on the gritty urban vistas of Italian neorealism, so Alice draws on neorealism’s unique ability to fashion fully-formed child protagonists, while giving it a distinct American edge and absurdity at the same time. As a result, Alice’s relationship with Tommy somehow manages to feel totally improvised, and as familiar, enduring and endearing as that of a classic sitcom.
At the same time, Alice also sinks quite naturally into her relationship with Florence, to the point where Ladd almost steals the show with this remarkably fully-formed character. Rather than resolve the film’s dissonance, their rapport accelerates and exceeds it, until they managed to embed it in the very fabric of their relationship itself. The tipping-point comes in the film’s most raucous scene, which starts with Florence announcing to the restaurant that Alice has been “taking a shit,” before a food fight that ends with tomato sauce and tears everywhere. Yet Alice now shifts between hysterical laughter and abject crying for the first time since her husband’s death, except that the transition happens the other way, as her heaving body language turns from tears to paroxysms of laugher. In this moment, the film finds its catharsis, and arguably its true trajectory – a second relationship that exudes both indie singularity and sitcom seriality, especially when a third waitress comes in on the bonding experience too, turning this into a more comic and anarchic forebear of Altman’s 3 Women.
Nevertheless, these twin experiences of motherhood and female friendship are mitigated by a second trajectory, embodied by David, a cowboy played by Kris Kristofferson, who Alice also meets in the restaurant. The iconic film poster has Alice and David wrapped in a loving embrace, suggesting a romantic determinism that’s not really true to the film itself, where David is quite incidental, more token, and closer to a fantasy on the fringes of Alice’s life. Whereas Florence and Alice embed the film’s raucous energy into their relationship, David disavows it, providing Alice with a stylised western calm that just makes this energy all the more anarchic and antisocial when it does finally return. For all his moody blue eyes, David turns into an echo of Alice’s ex-husband really quickly, even as her rapport with Florence and her son intensifies and becomes the affective kernel of the film. David hits Tommy the first time he disobeys his will, and confesses to Alice that he hasn’t seen his own kids in ages, as she realises that having a man doesn’t make her a better parent – and the film asks whether husbands and fathers are really the bedrock of American civil society that they appear to be.
For a moment, David’s presence even makes it seem like Alice was simply looking for a man, but that was never the point of the first two acts of the film. While she wasn’t closed to romance, she was fleeing the idea that only romance could satisfy her – and the knowledge that any Hollywood film would prescribe romance as a generic necessity, which perhaps explains why David’s presence as a cinematic trope is so momentarily alluring. That need to displace a masculine trope whose sheer omniscience renders it irresistible is neatly encapsulated in Tommy’s friend Audrey, played by Jodie Foster. Audrey appears to be what we would now understand as gender fluid or non-binary, alternately presented as a tomboy and as an actual boy, and confounding the masculine determinism of American cinema through their very presence. While they only appear intermittently, Audrey are the quilting-point of the third act, the still point around which Scorsese presents the restaurant’s vortical force field, and the two different narrative trajectories competing to contain and address it.
Put simply, then, one ending (the David ending) is cinematic, classical and traditional, in keeping with the stylised opening credits, while the other ending (the Florence and Tommy ending) feels as if it should stretch out into a sitcom, or an improvised performance – or some other medium beyond cinema, so elastic and episodic is its energy. Scorsese saves the longest and most inventive tracking-shot for the pivotal scene when Florence takes Alice to the bathroom for the chat that cements their friendship – a camera mobility so fractured and volatile that it seems to be a line of flight from cinema itself, or cinema as we know it. Scorsese is thus faced with a paradox here: the subject matter of Alice takes him away from his normal masculine subjects, but also reveals that he needs to do just this to render his own film style genuinely futuristic. This recognition would propel him into the dynamic, elastic and anxious masculinity that triangulates Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver, and then percolates out to his other films about masculine fraternity, while also distinguishing him from the more staid and insular visions of Italian-American culture proffered by Coppola.
No surprise, then, that the reconciliation between Alice and David feels pretty forced, since it’s tantamount to grafting romance onto a film that’s inimical to it – or grafting film onto an object that is already straining to exceed film as we know it. To its credit, though, Alice never quite settles on David either, as Scorsese opts for a mercurial last shot that gathers the entire film into one shimmering threshold. While Alice is ostensibly staying in Tucson with David, we last see in her in transit, alone with her son, walking down the side of the highway, with a sign for the “Monterey Lounge” gesturing towards other possibilities along the blacktop. Poised between reality and fantasy, between cinema as we know it and the beyond, it’s the perfect non-ending for Scorsese’s most dynamic film since his debut – and still his most experimental film since his debut. You can’t help but feel that Scorsese would have never achieved the singular vision of Taxi Driver without the revelation he arrives at here – that a genuinely futuristic cinema cannot be as cloistered in its sentimental masculinity as Mean Streets, brilliant as that film was, whose horizons he had to expand as ceaselessly as Alice herself.