Due to ease of access, I’ll be covering 1974 and 1975 before 1973.
Martin Scorsese has returned to the poisoned well of his proving ground far too often. Mean Streets was a vivacious, convulsing snarl of Catholic guilt and post-French Connection inner-city rot. Taxi Driver deepened his fixation on perverting classical Hollywood with a clanking, cantankerous pile of scrap metal as his weapon of choice. Raging Bull perfected all of his pet themes, themes he would relapse to a decade later when things got difficult and he needed a genuine corker of a gangster pic to build up a little good will again. Since then, having earned his cred already, he has too often made the fatal mistake of drinking the water of his own making again and again, and he’s built up a resistance that makes his new films on the same subject seem ironclad in a certain respectable distance and stateliness that devours their energy and liveliness. When he made The Departed, a fine film, he was doing nothing but reheating old leftovers that tasted better thirty years before. The genuine shape and form was still there, but the fascinatingly pungent odors and the sharp acid of the taste was gone.
Since 1980, Scorsese has generally been at his best when moving away from his natural interests and daring himself with a test of will. His two masterpieces of the 1980s (excepting Raging Bull), King of Comedy and After Hours, are a nasty-minded stand-up routine and a cruel, warped comic odyssey with eyes for Bergman, respectively. King of Comedy, at least, and to a lesser extent After Hours, have regained clout in modern times, but his earliest experiment (and even in 1974, it could have been something of an experiment) has yet to reemerge with quite the same flair. But 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is one of the director’s best, most challenging films, showcasing both the spirit of Scorsese the bestial ’70s director of hard times and hard people, and Scorsese the cinematic enthusiast who remained ever-interested in pursuing new stylistic and thematic ground right from the beginning.
Thematically, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is instantly recognizable as a self-exploration. It is not, for one, set in New York, but the polar opposite location in the United States, both geographically and metaphorically: the American Southwest, a region of empty, pallid dust and wide, revealing open spaces, rather than endless chaos and almost carnal hard angles masquerading as people ready to pounce on each other. Secondly, it is a film about a middle-aged female (Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn) attempting to understand herself and confront the more cumbersome regions of modern American womanhood, whereas most of Scorsese’s most famous films are tales of masculine prowess and self-critical exploration of angry, assertive men who do everything but attempt to discover themselves because they are too busy lashing out at everyone around them.
In contrast, Alice is a gentle film that must struggle to maintain its gentle demeanor throughout, very much like Burstyn’s character herself, coping with the harsh world after her hateful husband dies and affords her a temporary freedom that the masculine world is bent on destroying. It is, essentially, a Scorsese film painted from a different perspective, from the perspective of the women who tend to find themselves ignored or at least devoid of agency in his other films. Alice is an extraordinarily sympathetic film, with Burstyn imbuing Alice with conviction and temperamental desperation and, most importantly, a genuine sense of frustration and anger when she needs it. She is a tough, quiet woman stranded in a life that doesn’t always seem to want her. When she explores the Southwest desert hoping to make it for herself and her son as a singer, she finds that life isn’t as easy as she dreamt.
She is also a woman who sheds her suburban sitcom-wife origins, pointedly expressed by Scorsese’s rummaging camera, always circling and peering into the personal spaces and houses around her to reveal the clutter and combustion that threatens her various households. Especially enticing is the way he juggles the new school cinema vérité raggedness of modern life with the romantic lushness and softness of old Hollywood, a softness he occasionally sours into something deliberately artificial and uncomfortable. The opening, especially, is pure fire and brimstone movie making, providing a childlike glimpse of over-saturated theatrics where a young girl, a visual quote of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, attempts to finish a golden-oldies tune of wistful romance, only to bluntly curse when she can’t. It is a harsh refutation of the romantic sheen often applied to moving out West, all the more profound and pointed due to the careful modulation of aspect ratios (using an Old Hollywood ratio for the opening and abandoning it throughout the rest of the film) and especially his uncanny use of color, recreating the saturation of Technicolor Hollywood but in a black-and-red hue that is garish and uncomfortable rather than inviting and warm.
And this is only the beginning. It doesn’t hint at the subtle and quiet use of Western imagery (the sentimental visage of Ben, a man played by Harvey Keitel, who woos Alice until he unravels into the venomous snake he truly is, wears a cowboy outfit and serves as an allegory for the Western genre and its scorpion-like hidden brutality). It doesn’t hint at the way Scorsese taps into Tennessee Williams to trap his characters in a glass menagerie of windows and mirrors. It doesn’t hint at the sly undercurrent of bonding between Alice and her twelve year old son, a continual burden but also her only true source of joy, nor does it hint at the scabrous comedy enlivening the material and mocking the sitcom story areas the film peers into only to complicate and worry.
As things move along, it evolves far beyond the belabored grit so many films from the time aspire to and instead into the more complicated human boroughs of imagery that evoke different arenas of American life, American history, and American weirdness. Scorsese has, many times, tackled the abuses of the male persona with indignant discomfort, but he never elsewhere married that critique to an empathetic negotiation of female community, agency, and bonding. Nor has a Scorsese film elsewhere ended with a simultaneous bid for human interaction and love, as well as a statement to female empowerment embodied in an unspeakably beautiful final shot paying homage to Alice having finally discovered what it means to relate to others without letting a man control her life to his needs only. She has discovered the art of putting her foot down. Alice may not be as uncontested in its brilliance as some of Scorsese’s other films, but it remains an unfairly neglected slice of tragic everyday Americana and sympathetic, unmodulated human discourse and interaction.