Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) – It’s a Beautiful Day

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An existentialist road movie from the master of crime does sound strange. But when it’s from a visionary, it tends to work out as Alice would substantiate. Sandwiched between Mean Streets (1973) and the cult Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese tried his hands on a low-budget feminist drama about life by peeking through the journey of a single-mother, her displaced son, and their adventures trying to earn a living and a slice of fame through austerity and honesty.

After her alcoholic husband (Billy Bush) passes away one mournful morning, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) has no support system. She has nowhere to go, nothing to do. A generic homemaker, Alice has spent most of her life under guidance of her parents and later her husband. Her only skill, per se, is music. But she has to cope with a new life, especially with her nagging pre-teen son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), her sole responsibility.

Alice decides to sell whatever’s left, keep the tidbits, and leave Socorro for Monterey to revive her singing career and presumably become the new Alice Fay. Yet, money doesn’t compromise and they’re forced to lodge in Phoenix. There she applies for jobs that require singing. For her, applying means knocking door-to-door offering her musical talent, but luck’s a hard bird to catch. With proper marketing, she does catch it, only for it to crumble down after her brief association with the suave, yet abusive husband of her next-door neighbor.

The mother and son flee again. This time, they reach Tucson. Lady luck strikes, Alice gets a job as a server at a fast food. It rolls smoothly there. She comes across peculiar characters, but hey–she’s working, she’s earning, and she has a wonderful son. Time rolls on for Alice until David (Kris Kristofferson) comes by. They fall in love, yadda, yadda. Again, Alice being the naïve country girl, she stumbles upon another setback, with her lover here. This time though, she doesn’t elope, but holds firm and continues her work.

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Alice is a bittersweet tale about the journey of a woman in an age when feminism was sharply rising. Scorsese picks an unassuming, simple woman to tell a story of a single-mother striving to survive, in a largely patriarchal society, with her son stuck within the four corners of a house. Perhaps, Scorsese added something of his own to the character of Tommy. By his own admission, Scorsese was an indoor child during his early days and spent much time watching TV and subconsciously learning the craft of filmmaking. There are good similarities between Martin Scorsese’s childhood and the childhood of Tommy, except he doesn’t live in nearby gangster town filled with mafias and wise guys. But, there are similarities…

Through this drama though, Scorsese previews the aftermath of tragedy for a housewife—who had no career of her own, not much in the name of property, and was all alone, with a young son, in a distant society. The story of Alice is about coping up and trying to create a niche for oneself. Alice and Tommy travel from here to there in search for a dignified life amidst strangers and demons. The purpose for Alice is to find work that would enable her and the son to live cozily, and would help her realize her childhood dream. In this small quest for dignity, they come across different people in different settings. Yet, they strive on together as candid buddies amid some amusing circumstances.

At the end, people do need support systems. All Alice is doing is seeking one—for her and for her son. And, Scorsese shows this with unwavering simplicity, a country charm, and unfiltered nobility. Alice doesn’t Live here Anymore is arguably the most underrated film from Scorsese, and throws a revealing reflection of what’s in store from the maverick filmmaker. It’s all easy to say that now 30 years after Alice, but for a select few, Roger Ebert comes to mind, they’d seen the legend of Scorsese before even Scorsese envisioned his role as an unparalleled storyteller.

Scorsese fans would no doubt love Alice for it’s unalike most Scorsese movies since then. It’s a refresher and I’d doubt many could guess that Alice came from Scorsese if they ignored the rolling titles, which serves Scorsese well. One of the criticisms against him have been lack of variety in his movies as opposed to Kubrick, Wilder, Spielberg, et al. Rather naïve to say that for people mistake his archetypical vision and stamp for lack of variety. He’s shown variety in plenty of movies, in diverse genres, Alice included.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a beauty. A gusty little story told with ease, the movie is warm, charming, and adorable just like the character of Alice. Ellen Burstyn carries the movie on her shoulders for which she deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress, even though she’s known more for another classic, The Exorcist (1973). Other actors are in fine form, especially Diane Ladd as the foul-mouthed server, Flo.

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Alice comes across as a simple documentation of  life. For those who admire existentialist dramas, coming of age movies, or the lovely liberty of a second chance, or for film buffs, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a fine experience and a swift watch encompassing the spirit of life’s tangibility and exemplifying that if life throws lemons at you, just make lemonade. After all, you’re only as healthy as you feel, no?

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Phantom of the Paradise (1974) – When the Phantom Meets Dorian Gray in a Faustian Affair

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The ever notorious Brian De Palma builds his gothic drama on the foundation of three classic novels—Gaston Leroux’ Phantom of the Opera, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the German legend, Faust, popularized by Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. As it goes, De Palma does the seemingly impossible by creating a perfect transmutation of three novels featuring the devil, the man who sold his soul to the devil in a Faustian trade-off, and the unlikely musical genius, the Phantom.

Despite borrowing the premises from these classics, De Palma manages to present a shrilling satire on the booming entertainment industry of the 70s—revealing the private lives and behaviors of music artists and recording studio executives. The overarching dominance of corporates over art serves as the central theme. That’s only the beginning though as Phantom of the Paradise treads over mayhem and chaos—disorganization and catastrophe.

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In this devilish drama, De Palma uses his archetypical violence in telling a story of a naïve music composer, Winslow Leach (played by William Finley), who is robbed and destroyed by the executive of Death Records, Swan (Paul Williams)—only to come back as the devil’s double. Jessica Harper stars as Phoenix, the unrequited lover of the Phantom, but De Palma doesn’t spare her either. Her life spirals down to chaos as her fame increases, as people go crazy over her sultry voice and girl-next-door avatar. Leave it to the Phantom to save her though. He secretly writes songs for her. She gives them life and that’s all the Phantom wants. Nevertheless, we have a villain in the perplexing Swan—who does things his way or the highway, and when the Devil himself faces off against the Devil’s Double, we’re in De Palma territory.

Phantom of the Paradise is content-driven and includes themes from the trio of novels, yet also manages to give a commentary on fandom, the entertainment business, monopoly of recording studios, degeneration of artists, frantic stampedes, and the manufacturing of music stars to meet the needs and demands of these studios. Musicians-cum-artists may create magic, but the magic is all in the hands of these moguls who retain it and reuse it as they deem fit, as it fits their agenda.

For a movie that says so much, Phantom of the Paradise is a breezy ride, which is nothing short of sensational considering the gravity of the themes De Palma explores and the novels he bases this fantastic story on. Paradise contains all of De Palma’s idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker. There’s love, sex, violence, treachery, betrayal, sacrifice, and redemption—making this film a thesis on De Palma and his thrilling style.

Then, there’s overindulgence (Swan) and there’s under-indulgence (The Phantom). On one side, we have the power of control. On the other side, we have the virtue of a genius. In the middle is the struggling singer, Phoenix, in oblivion to all of this—trying to create a path to musical glory. Along the way, she loses track, but her omnipresent guardian angel is always there for her, looking out for her—trying to rescue her from the dirty business and attempting to introduce her to the sound of music.

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De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission Impossible (1996) might be more popular than Paradise, but with no qualms, one can safely assert that Phantom of the Paradise is his seminal classic. It’s brutal, gory, and tragic, with some unforgettable scenes shown with a bittersweet touch. It tells a fascinating story of polarities, yet it’s very entertaining. In questioning the underbelly of the music business of the 70s, De Palma not only informs, he entertains. He makes this a joyous watch defying stereotypes. Considering that Paradise is a musical tragedy, the mere fact that it’s warm despite being cold, it’s fun whilst being sad makes this an exemplary piece of art.

What makes Paradise worth it is the fairytale-like presentation. De Palma executes this grave movie with light undertones and sets a fanatical mood. Whatever you see is light-hearted. The gory scenes are shot comically. They’re powerful, but filtered. The villain is what you’d expect from a Disney cartoon—smooth, yet with his own quirks. The Phantom, the unlikely hero, is like Popeye who’s a go-lucky guy that reaches another plane when he smells the air of music, when anybody questions is ingenuity, when people try to plagiarize his compositions, or when they set their evil eyes on his ladylove. His life and his music are only for the Phantom, and more importantly, Phoenix.

None of the actors in this movie really outgrew Paradise. William Finley stars with bravura and naivety as the unlikely Phantom. Jessica Harper steals the show. Three years later, she’d star in Dario Argento’s tour de force, Suspiria—one of the finest horrors ever made, but it’s sad to see that she never reached her true potential as an actor. Paul Williams, a real life musician, probably climbed his highest peak with Paradise. He’s brilliant as the suave, cunning, and quirky Swan—a role, it appears, designed for him.

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Complimented by terrific performances, a brilliant script, and De Palma’s unwavering artistry, Phantom of the Paradise is total non-stop action. Taking you to De Palma’s frenzied world, it clutches onto you and doesn’t let go. A fine addition to New Hollywood of the 70s, Paradise is a mixture of love and hatred forming an untouchable pact that carries the film’s legacy until today. The scar-faced Phantom in a match against the Devil, dressed to kill, all equipped to blow you out – a feat, mission impossible to topple.