Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Frank Zappa's 200 Motels (1971)

Centerville, a typical American town where the main street is lined with churches, liquor stores, and bowling alleys, (..just like Glendale!). This is the ultimate in middle-class suburbia - (a real great place to raise your kids up) - and the fictional setting of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels. The arguement that this film gave birth to the music video is a valid one because, essentially, that is just what it is - a 98 minute onslaught of music, images, and animation. By taking one of his conceptual albums and bringing it to life, Zappa gives us as an audience a glimpse at his creative genius.


The film opens on the stage of what appears to be a faux television game show. As Larry the Dwarf (Ringo Starr) is lowered into the studio by a harness we see that he is decked out in full Frank Zappa attire and brandishing a bubbling magic lamp. Dave (Theodore Bikel), the show's host, asks Larry as to why he is dressed in such a manner as Larry exclaims that Frank Zappa is forcing him to do so. Larry also adds that Zappa has asked him to violate the female harpist, (played by a habit draped Keith Moon), with the magic lamp. Dave then asks the studio audience to consider Larry's moral dilemma before inviting him to spin a giant novelty game show wheel. The traditional synopsis will end here because the film does not become any more coherent after this sequence, in fact, you could say that things start to get a little bizarre..well, even more so than seeing the Beatles' drummer suggesting that he molest the drummer from The Who with a magic lamp.

However, the absence of an orthodox plot is exactly the scenario that Zappa is trying to create. By adopting the limitless creative freedom that is possible with music and applying it to a major motion picture, Zappa crafts a film that captures the raw unpredictibility of a live musical performance and blends it with a perfectionist's eye for a tight rigid structure using state-of-the-art post production equipment.

200 Motels also borrows heavily from Bertolt Brecht's concept of 'Verfremdungseffekt' - the idea of not allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief in the performance. The set pieces are purposely constructed to look like sets, the lighting grid on the studio ceiling is constantly visible, and characters continually make remarks about the phony-ness of the film. "..is there any beer in the fake nightclub?", asks one of the Mothers of Invention at one point early on in the film. During the opening sequence, where Larry the Dwarf is invited to spin 'the big wheel', our narrator tells us that what Larry is doing is necessary because it is in the script to 200 Motels.

Zappa's film successfully captures the insanity that one band inevitably feels when touring on the road. This loosely outlined but tightly structured string of vignettes and musical numbers is definitely not for everyone but if you are craving something totally different than the typical 'concert film', 200 Motels is definitely worth checking out.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Il Grande Silenzio (1968)

By the time that 1968 rolled in, the spaghetti western genre had already been firmly established by Sergio Leone, a director who single-handedly created a fresh new art form by skewing every prescedent ever set by the classic American western. In the mid-to-late 1960's, Italy became the epicenter of spaghetti western production as the films were quickly exported and distributed to a North American audience lusting for a fresh new film movement. So when Sergio Corbucci, (sometimes referred to as "the other Sergio"), released Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence) that year, audiences worldwide had already been exposed to the novelties of the Italo-Western. However, what Corbucci ultimately created with Il Grande Silenzio would reverberate for decades and, to this day, remain one of the strongest anti-Hollywood statements ever commited to celluloid.

Set amidst the snow-swept hills of Utah, the film follows Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a mute gunslinger hired by a local woman to hunt down the men responsible for the murder of her husband. Klaus Kinski plays the sadistic Loco, ringleader of the bounty hunters that Silence is after, delivering a magnificent performance as one of the most callous villains of all time. The violence rapidly escalates throughout the film until finally climaxing in one of the most shocking finales ever imagined.

Everything about this film is different; the setting is a barren and isolated frontier not unlike any other western we've seen, but Corbucci's decision to set the entire film on a brutal frozen landscape alone makes it a very tense and disturbing experience. Horses painfully trudge through the snow, many times collapsing from exhaustion, while guns constantly jam due to the temperature. Corbucci's camera direction is also, to say the least, sloppy. This, however, gives the film just the right touch of insanity required for such a radical western - sporadic zooming, shaky roaming shots, and rapid fire cuts during gunplay sequences are just some of the bizarre techniques used here. The utter carnage displayed is also executed in the typical Corbucci style - blood splatters against the white of the snow, innocent men and women are executed without any mercy, and the ending of the picture is one of the bleakest conclusions of all time. If Leone's films suggest that there is no redemption in the brutal and morally corrupt American west, Corbucci expands upon that with the suggestion that there is no redemption for humanity.

Ennio Morricone's underrated score for Il Grande Silenzio is both hauntingly beautiful and unequivocally original. Certainly one of his masterpieces.