Sometimes I forget that directors were once weird film school kids. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a perfect reminder of that fact, and that Martin Scorsese, the legend behind such badassery as Raging Bull, The Departed, and Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver, once had some indie weirdness in him. Just like the rest of the dreamers.
The intro sequence to this movie is straight-up bizarre, with 1939-era technicolor slides and very obvious sets, and it paints this ethereal picture of a small girl, enjoying the hell out of herself in a dream-like farm town called Monterey (coincidentally, where I grew up, too). Then, there’s a flash forward, and we get to know this little girl all grown up. The colors are normal, the cuts between scenes are quick, and it’s like that first part of the movie never existed. The style and mood of it aren’t even referred to anymore. I’d fault Scorsese, but the rest of the story is so well done and so fascinating that it hardly seems fair. He was young and experimenting and he hadn’t yet met De Niro.
The girl–nay, woman–is Alice, and Ellen Burstyn inhabits her wholly. At first glance, she takes the abuse of her husband weakly, letting him walk all over her and earning none of our respect. But bits of her quirky personality come out as the clock ticks, and her confidence emerges as she’s (spoiler alert) forced to raise their son as a single mother. The whole film is about her fight, with herself, for her independence, about her learning to give herself credit, about her having the balls to discipline her child when needed and reward him when he’s behaved wise beyond his years.
I think my first exposure to Burstyn was as the mean old neighbor in the movie version of The Baby-Sitters Club, a highly underrated pre-teen movie that I must have watched 100 times as a kid. So I’ll always have this image of her as a bat/witch/whathaveyou. Her face isn’t particularly soft or sympathetic, but she acts the hell out of this role and forces you to be on her side without ever making you feel sorry for her. Alice is fierce and complicated and determined, and inspirational enough to be a real person. I wish she were.
Her relationship with her son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter III), is even more inspiring. They speak to one another like old friends, and their mutual respect is something really special. Of course, she is the mother, and has the authority, and he respects it, but he’s just one of those kids that seems too grounded to be real. He is probably the projection of how we all wish kids were, and therefore a delusion of the adult mind, but it sure is pleasant watching her shoot the shit and be her true self around someone a third of her age. As they road-trip across the country, sights set on that oasis Monterey (if they only knew…), they trade quips and blabs and all sorts of hilarious one-liners. The editing for those scenes is especially brilliant, too, with the music and the way that their conversation flows. I wish Scorsese allowed him more of these sentimental moments in his movies. He also incorporated a ton of those aforementioned quick jump-cuts, which at first seem sort of amateurishly done, but I saw them more as a reflection of Alice’s newfound extrovert-ed-ness. She refuses to dwell on her sad past and instead focuses on her future — singing in a bar, serving in a restaurant with sweet-and-sour-talkin’ Flo (Diane Ladd), flirting with OH MY GOD THAT’S HARVEY KEITEL?!, flirting with HEY KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’S PRETTY CUTE TOO, HUH — and her future is about her, with a side of man and a few more sides of side characters. (I guess that’s why they made this thing into a TV show; the story sure has staying power.) That whole chestnut about the journey being more important than the destination feels a lot less cliche and a lot more genuine after watching this movie. Go figure.