Thursday, August 20, 2009

Frank Zappa's 200 MOTELS May Be The Most WTF Movie Experience Ever

To the elation of film buffs and '70s art rock fans all over, MGM has just released a new 35 MM print of Frank Zappa's 1971 freak-fest flick 200 MOTELS. The film played earlier tonight as part of the "Cool Classics @ The Colony" series at the Colony Theater in Raleigh and I was very anxious to see it for the first time.

When I was much younger I went through a bit of a Zappa phase, yet while I collected dozens of his albums somehow I never saw 200 MOTELS. I had wondered what it was exactly. Well, after seeing it tonight I see that it's not a concert film, though there are long sequences that make it seem otherwise, it's not a tour documentary, and it sure isn't any kind of musical with a linear narrative. Actually I'm still trying to figure out what the Hell it is.

Despite that it was "written" (that's highly debatable), and directed by Zappa with wall-to-wall music of his composing, it's really more his band's - The Mothers Of Invention's movie than his ultimately.

The faces and voices of Martin Volman (Flo), Eddie (Howard Kaylan) and Jeff (Martin Lickert) dominate the screen with random pop-ins from ex-Beatle Ringo Starr as Larry the Dwarf who is oddly outfitted as Zappa. There's also Keith Moon (infamous drummer from The Who) as a nun, Theodore Bikel as the Devil, and famous Hollywood groupies Pamela Miller, Miss Lucy Offerall and Miss Janet Neville as, well, groupies.

To complain that this movie is a mess misses the mark because it's a mess by design. the comedic musical numbers like "Mystery Roach" and the Indian of the group (that's how hi introduces himself) Jimmy Carl Black's over-the-top redneck vocal on "Lonesome Cowboy Burt" are surrounded by the sketchiest of sketches involving the oppresive "Centeville community" and a lengthy discourse on the "Penis Dimension."

Then there's a cartoon called "Dental Hygiene Movie" that may stand as one of the most amusing bits in the heavy mist of this wild offkilter "happening" disguised as a movie. Or is it a movie disguised as a "happening"? I dunno. Noted as the first feature-length movie to be shot on video tape and later transferred to 35mm Technicolor film, 200 MOTELS is on surface a trippy experience. 

It sinks in though pretty early on that Zappa didn't not partake in, in fact distained, the psychedelic drugs of the era. The footage is screwed around with considerably - sped up slowed down with certain actions repeated over and over, but not in a way that would soothe hippies' mindsets whatever their level of chemical enhancement. In his 3 star review (from the original release), Roger Ebert said that it was "not the kind of movie you have to see more than once. It is the kind of movie you can barely see once."

I have to agree with that. Though I know that this has appeared to be a less than stellar review, 200 MOTELS is still somehow an experience I recommend. It's like some half remembered dream in which Monty Python silliness is filtered through Sid and Marty Kroft imagery with what sounds like Spike Jones discovering funk blaring overhead. 

If a circulating print comes to your area - check it out. Sure, it's dated and weird as all get out, but it's still an extremely worthwhile demented diversion.

More later...


Ceri said...

Why haven't I seen this? This sounds like a total mindtrip. :-D But then again, aren't all films with musicians in from the '70s? I remember watching 'Performance' with Mick Jagger in college and that was a complete WTF moment too.

steveburnett said...

Watching the film last night, I realized that the extended comedy sketches and music and rambling and guitar noodling discussion on "the penis dimension" in the second half of the film seemed oddly prescient in the modern era - as though Frank Zappa saw ahead from 1971 to 2009, anticipated the Internet and the endless deluge of sexual organ-enlarging spam email, and adapted our modern spam problem into a movie.

Jill said...

Not really being familiar with Zappa's music, I felt like I was watching the rock opera that George Crumb would have composed - if he was into that sort of thing....which who knows, he may be?

Pat said...

Hi Daniel,
Thanks for this interesting post, which linking to made our piece more valuable to our readers.
Check our The Blog of Kevin Dolgin, Sept. 8, "Frank Zappa Conquers Europe."
Best of all possible regards,
Pat Hartman
News Editor, The Blog of Kevin Dolgin