Alice's Restaurant, and How Much We Have Changed
Every once in a while I take my beloved by the hand and ask her to join me on a leisurely stroll through some font of American culture that holds nostalgic value for me personally. (I'm not actually sure that metaphorical fonts can be strolled through, but I guess they can now.)
It was in this spirit that we sat together through the 1969 film Alice's Restaurant, starring Arlo Guthrie and based on the 1967 song of the same name. The song itself had such a big impact on me as a teenager, when I first heard it, that I entered 'Alice's Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement' in the space for 'clubs and activities' in my high school yearbook. The compilers of the yearbook didn't understand what that meant, of course, and they ended up misspelling 'Massacree', but it meant an awful lot to me and a few of my friends. It meant a general opposition to war set to a ragtime groove and a lot of really funny narration.
Naturally, that description alone won't suffice to hook anyone who hasn't either heard the song or seen the film, but I've seen the latter described as 'the greatest counterculture film ever', for what that's worth. At any rate, I can still use this visit to Old America to make some comparisons, be they of the astute or snide variety, between the country of 1969 and 2018.
So here are some things that are likely to surprise people--not just here in Japan, where things are fairly subdued anyway, but in contemporary America as well, where the pathalogical apathy of the iGen is now the dominant cultural trope. Here we go.
And I mean really, really skinny. The average person's body was of the type that lots of people nowadays--all of them, if they fill the bill as Social Justice Warriors and declaim any hint that morbid obesity is anything other than beautiful as 'fat shaming'--refer to as 'anorexically thin'. (Anorexia, incidentally, is a clinical disorder that constantly made headlines when I was a child, but seems to get rare mention nowadays. People with the condition perceive themselves as overweight no matter how thin they actually are. Nowadays that meaning seems to have been forgotten, and the term seems most frequently used as a put-down for people who aren't fat.)
Fat is the new normal--actually, not really so new anymore, because more than half of the total population of the US has been clinically obese for more than a decade--and so when I show them pictures of regular people in Japan, they say, 'They look anorexic'.
Well, to me, the people around me on a daily basis just look normal. They may be somewhat abstemious with respect to total caloric intake, but most of them aren't intensely physically active, they're just regular members of a modern industrial society.
Still, the average Tom, Dick and Hiroshi in downtown Tottori aren't quite of the physique that dominated, say, these scenes downtown London in 1967:
This is Procol Harum's video for 'A Whiter Shade of Pale'. When my wife saw this video she said the same thing she said when she saw Alice's Restaurant: みんな細い！[Everyone's so skinny!]
Everyone looked like that in downtown Tokyo well into the 1980s, of course, before the proliferation of diets rich in melon-pan, mayonnaise-stuffed onigiri, cup ramen, and so-called 'coffee' that tastes like the tin it came in--it's just that the contrast with today's London, or just about anywhere in the USA, is much, much more extreme.
I can't help but wonder if some members of the iGen stumbling upon a video like 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' might not think it's a hoax, that people couldn't really have been that thin. I'm almost certain that a scene like this would have seemed like a hoax to me as a child--and utterly beyond imagination to a child of the 1960s.
In fact, the only hefty character to appear in Alice's Restaurant was Officer Obie, who I am convinced must be regarded as relatively fit by the majority of Americans today--the statistically significant risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes presented by his 'spare tyre' would be only slightly elevated over the average person in the 1960s, compared with those who are so incapacitated by their own blubber that they ride wheelchairs to shop for sporting goods.
Again, I mean really a lot. It's shown or implied at least a dozen times throughout the film. Sure, it might be exaggerated, but it does seem to have been a lot more common than it is now. (I don't want to make too much of a link with the previous section of this post, but there is some statistical correlation between body fat and libido. We'll just leave it at that.)
Alice's Restaurant was filmed at the height of the 'free love' zeitgeist, which (I'm told) carried over well through the '70s, only to be dampened by the discovery of the AIDS virus in 1980. The decade to follow was more about money than love (sexual or otherwise), and thence rose the Yuppie generation and its attendant spirit of generally keeping one's clothes on.
These days the youth are too mired in an electronic reproduction of life to really pay attention to each other. I have heard of high schoolers with no inclination or inspiration to date anyone, and even college students coming to the end of the assembly line of institutional schooling without once having a close encounter of the primal kind.
The more we make these types of comparisons, the more it comes to look less like a different country than a different planet.
There was also a lot of tolerance expressed in the film. Not the kind of obnoxious, in-your-face 'tolerance' that crowds the airwaves today and demands that we use nonexistant pronouns to refer to anyone who insists on them on pain of harassment lawsuits, but the kind of tolerance that really contributed to people living amicably together--and sometimes not together if they chose. That was the beautiful thing. They hung together when they wanted and didn't try to guilt-trip each other for any personal lifestyle choices. The pure ideal was being one's 'own person' without the intrusive influence of friends, family, lovers, society, government, or any other entity or establishment.
It rarely worked out in the real world, of course, and lots of people made messes of lots of things, but at least there was the spirit, and that is from what we've strayed so far in 2018.
We can only do our own part to preserve a little bit of it. Maybe watching the film even today will inspire someone, somewhere, with a bit more hope, or freedom, or creativity and gentle rebellion.
Or at least to go on a diet.