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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!

In 1968 the glow was starting to come off the famed "Summer of Love" a year earlier. Frank Zappa released We're Only In It For The Money, his brutal put-down of hippie pretension. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The Democratic Convention in Chicago showed television viewers a different face of the "question authority" ethic and response. But there was still hope and optimism that society could find a different and more peaceful path to existence. Many people were still searching for alternative answers. In the middle of this confusion, Warner Brothers released I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.

The movie reflects the cultural uncertainty of the times startlingly well. It doesn't seem to know whether it wants to put down and make fun of the straight-laced squares attempting to hang on to beliefs, styles, and behavior patterns little changed from the good ol' structured 50's or to expose and decry the pretensions and ineffectuality of a flower child subculture caught up in its own mindless conformity of nonconformism. Eventually it settles for the easy route, making fun of everybody and taking no stand.

Peter Sellers stars as Harold Fine, a Jewish lawyer living in Los Angeles and accepting of a rather passionless engagement to Joyce (Joyce Van Patten). Sellers puts on much the same American accent he used for President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, but with a touch more Jewish inflection that comes and goes as needs dictate.

Joyce is played as an irritating, exasperating, insistent woman fixated on the idea of their marriage. It comes as something of a relief when various events cause Harold to chuck his staid lifestyle and take up with a free spirited hippie chick (Leigh Taylor-Young). The movie is heavy on stereotypes throughout (a family of 11 cheery Mexicans jammed into a car; a shrill Jewish mother; stoned hippie friends of Harold's counter-culture brother), but Harold's transformation trumps them all. Suddenly we see him with long flowing hair and headband, waxing rhapsodically over the ankh he wears around his neck and following a nonsense-spouting guru in white robes on the beach.

That guru is a strange character. He seems to have a position of prominence in the screenwriters' minds, setting up a proposition of action to his young disciples at the beginning of the film to go out and use love to change the establishment mindset, then popping up in a scene midway along as he leads his charges on a field trip to look at downtown office buildings, then showing up again as a spiritual guide for Harold. Yet he is strangely disconnected from any of the plot or other action in the movie.

At the end of the movie, Harold has managed to lose faith in both his initial conservative lifestyle and values and in the alternative hippie existence. There is an extremely confusing montage of film snippets that bounce between the steps that were leading him to the altar with Joyce and the steps that were leading him to a burnt out hippie abandonment of all responsibilities. We last see him running down the street, shouting that he doesn't know where he is going or what he will do, but there must be something out there. It's a clarion call and a desperate plea that probably went unanswered and unfulfilled for many people as they moved into the 1970's and a gradual stabilization of society again.

The movie can be hard to watch for a new millenium audience. It is a period piece, stuck firmly in and of its time. The wackiness of the characters (both "straight" and "free") seems overplayed and cartoonish. Leigh Taylor-Young fares best in a natural and honest performance as the young woman Harold falls for. She seems completely content with life as it is at each moment, and is the only character in the film not searching for something different, better, or designed to meet artificial expectations. Sellers and the rest of the cast give it their all, but are ultimately sabotaged by the writers' contempt for all of these characters.

The movie fits right in with two other films released the same year, showing a similar big studio take on the silliness of the youth's "flower power" movement. You can watch this along with Jane Fonda's loopy title role in Barbarella and then watch Mel Brooks lead Dick Shawn through an over the top caricature of a freakazoid hippie in The Producers (a part that was expunged from the recent Broadway and film remakes). As a trilogy, these movies speak volumes about the establishment strategy of showcasing and exaggerating the challenging viewpoints, as the films simultaneously lampoon and profit from their "enlightened" subjects.

Parents: The film contains numerous references to sex and drugs. One sequence features people getting ridiculously high and zany after eating a batch of the namesake "Alice B. Toklas brownies." There are scenes of people in bed together and obviously involved in sexual situations, although there is no nudity or graphic coupling. Swearing is very mild (of the "damn it!" variety).


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