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.

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