35mm FILM PRINT – Exclusive Engagement at CINEMA 21


SATURDAY, JUNE 12th at 11pm


In attempting to summarize the infamous history of FRANK ZAPPA’S 200 MOTELS, three quotes mentioned in Amos Vogel’s book, Film as a Subversive Art, come to mind which also address early malignment of the film.

For the music’s ribald, bawdy lyrics, which caused a live performance of 200 MOTELS to be banned from the Royal Albert Hall in 1971, Goethe wrote to Johann Eckermann, “Only the perverse fantasy can still save us.”

For co-director, Tony Palmer, who publicly disowned the film in an article he submitted to the British Sunday Observer for what he wrote off as a shamble and misguided scrap heap, Nathanael West wrote, “Your order is meaningless, my chaos is significant.”

Of note, Palmer withdrew his repudiation of the film recently by placing his name above the film’s title on last April’s DVD release (We’re Only in It for the Money, Mr. Palmer?).

And lastly, for Zappa who had no formal filmmaking training and for his prescient useage of videotape (200 MOTELS was the first feature film shot on video; director Palmer threatened to erase the master videotapes, which producer, Jerry Goode, later did in order to “balance the film budget”), then transferred to 35mm film using 3-strip Technicolor process, filmmaker Jean Cocteau wrote, “What one should do with the young is to give them a portable camera and forbid them to observe any rules except those they invent for themselves as they go along.”


On the surface, FRANK ZAPPA’S 200 MOTELS is a tapestry of stream of conscious vignettes chronicling how “touring can make you crazy”, blurring life on the road into a nightmare of conformity and narrow-mindedness.

However, through Dada “anti-art” aesthetics and Brechtian epic theatre, 200 MOTELS is also about the destruction of meaning through replication and repetition, whether it’s Zappa’s surreal depiction of Centerville U.S.A. as a “sealed tuna fish sandwich” with indistinguishable churches and liquor stores dotting every town, the formal representation of rural America through deliberately flimsy sets and blatantly fake props cast from real objects, or even through the medium of video itself, a cheap and instantly gratifying alternative to film, converting the motion picture screen into the same television, complete with sitcom laugh track, found in any chintzy American motel.

Zappa’s vision challenges us to see our own activities and values as inane, superficial and policed to ensure that we lead xenophobic, God-fearing, “productive” lives. Free creativity under capitalism is represented by the musicians interned in a concentration camp. In contrast, Zappa’s doppelgänger, Larry the Dwarf–ironically coming from the mouth of Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr–satirizes the function of popular culture by explaining, “the power of pop music to corrupt and putrify the minds of world youth are virtually limitless.”

Scene after scene, 200 MOTELS is a synthetic, psychedelic, kaleidoscopic burlesque of representation and facsimile swirling with wailing guitar air sculptures and modern dance, lewd yet jocular humor, winks to VanDerBeek collage animation, Warholian pop-art repetition and Claes Oldenburg’s art replicas of the mundane, references to Mephisto, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddysey, Brecht/Weill’s Mahagonie City and parody of Schoenberg’s atonal Pierrot Lunaire, all stuck together with a gob of spit in the face of peace and love, pre-dating The Sex Pistols by six years, with Zappa as the silent overseer symbolized by a single brown eye (vulgar slang for the sphincter) parodying power. Dense with images and ideas, FRANK ZAPPA’S 200 MOTELS is a post-modern junk sculpture of Joycean polysemy, or as Zappa would put it: “It’s a bit like eating a sausage: you don’t know what’s in it, you probably shouldn’t know what’s in there; but if it tastes good, well there you go.”


FRANK ZAPPA’S 200 MOTELS stars Ringo Starr as Larry the Dwarf (dressed and mustached like Zappa, who in turn is represented by a dummy in some scenes), Academy Award nominated actor and folk singer, Theodore Bikel as Rance Muhammitz, part Faustian Mephistopheles, part fascist dictator (Bikel’s family fled Austria to Palestine during the Nazi occupation), The Who’s Keith Moon as a pop star disguised as a groupie disguised as a nun (Moon’s scene prognosticates his real life death from a drug overdose, “The pills, I took so many downers that I know this is the end for me!”) and Martin Lickert, Ringo Starr’s chauffeur who took the part of Mothers of Invention bass player, Jeff Simmons, when he quit the group during production (Lickert as Simmons’ double devolves into a cartoon character of Faust in a furious animation maligning Simmons’ real life decision to quit playing “comedy music”).


In 1971, Variety wrote, “The incidents are often outrageously irreverent. The comedy is fast and furious, both sophisticated and sophomoric.”

Vincent Canby, New York Times, “No self-proclaimed surrealistic documentary can be all bad when it has a score composed by Frank Zappa, the Orson Welles of the rock music world….It cheerily evokes the image of groupies, warm beer, cheeseburgers, overflowing ash trays, efficient plumbing and inefficient air-conditioning, which freezes the air without cleaning it, in an endless chain of identical bed-sitters that are the homes-away-from-home for the members of a touring rock group.”

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, “We have been hearing for a long time that videotape is going to revolutionize filmmaking, and now here is the vanguard of the revolution. Whatever else it may be, FRANK ZAPPA’S 200 MOTELS is a joyous, fanatic, slightly weird experiment in the uses of the color videotape process. If there is more that can be done with videotape, I do not want to be there when they do it….The movie is so unrelentingly high that you even wish for intermissions….It is the kind of movie you can barely see once: not because it’s simple, but became it’s so complicated that you finally realize you aren’t meant to get everything and sort everything out. It is a full wall of sight-and-sound input, and the experience of the input — not its content, is what Zappa’s giving us. 200 MOTELS is out of Howard Johnson by Tinker Bell, with Aquarius setting.”

FRANK ZAPPA’S 200 MOTELS plays Saturday, June 12th ONLY, 11PM at Cinema 21 and will be introduced by yours truly!

Also of interest, DWEEZIL ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA performs the following Sunday night, June 13th, at The Roseland Theater.




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