I’ve stayed in my share of dreary motels, haughty hotels, Socialist-designed apartments with poster-board walls, and even nuclear plant “guest houses” (don’t even ask) in villages with names that lacked vowels, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like Frank Zappa’s 1971 mind-blowing movie, “200 Motels.” But then, I never dropped acid, either. (Becherovka was the only substance available to numb the reality of the Motel Moskva in Brno, Czechoslovakia, the worst of my many lodging nightmares). Every time I thought I was losing my mind – traveling the weary road on business trips in the 1990s – I remembered the opening line of a movie I once saw, and suddenly I didn’t feel so alone in my misery.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you can go mad on the road. That is precisely what this film is all about.” So goes the intro to Zappa’s “surrealistic documentary,” which opened at London’s Piccadilly Classic Cinema in the U.K. on this date in 1971. The film parodied the on-the-road touring experiences of his art-rock band, The Mothers of Invention. Ringo Starr played Larry the Dwarf (masquerading as Zappa), and Academy Award nominated actor and folk singer Theodore Bikel played Rance Muhammitz, a fascist dictator of sorts. The Who’s Keith Moon appeared as a pop star disguised as a groupie disguised as a nun. Need I go on?
Die-hard Zappanistas and chemical connoisseurs no doubt found the film delightful. The casual viewer could make no sense of it. But, the movie was original and visually provocative enough to draw praise from two of America’s leading film critics. Since I can barely muster the words to describe the images and their impact on the psyche, I’ll leave it to the experts.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, “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.” Wow, it sounds like Mr. Canby knows that setting a little too well.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times praises the technology behind the project: “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.” Hmmm, I wonder if the late, great Mr. Ebert was “unrelentingly high” when he screened the flick!
To borrow a line from Frank himself, watching “200 Motels” is “…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.” And that’s a great philosophy to have when you’re out on the road looking for adventure. So, take a chance…save some dough on your next vacation and book a room in a minimalist dive. You’ll then be able to entertain your friends (or, like me, bore them to death) with your “motel from hell” stories for the next 20 years.
Now, sit back, grab whatever mind-altering substance you might have on hand, and enjoy the trailer:
© Dana Spiardi, Dec 16, 2013