200 Motels

By Robert Wilson

Audience, December 1971

Commercial movies which are technical milestones – the first public surfacings of equipment developments destined to affect production methods – are often, dramatically, rumblings around the bottom of the barrel. Usually, the new (or newly perfected) techniques are the sole reasons for seeing the picture at all; there are doubts about the new process "catching on," and producers who take a chance on it are not necessarily those best qualified to use it artistically.

You can point to Kubrick's 2001 as an exception: experimenting, suggesting, daring and accomplishing at the same time...but most widely released "pilot runs" with a new development play it safe to the point of apathy. Look, if you can stay awake long enough, at The Jazz Singer (for sound), Rio Rita ("all talking-singing-dancing" in Technicolor's early two-stripe process), Bwana Devil (which set 3-D back a decade and more while introducing it to mass audiences), or This Is Cinerama, which inspired – if that's the right word – Cinemascope as well as a permanent alteration in 35mm projection aspect ratios.

So the movie enthusiast with a technical bent accepts the fact that works he feels he must catch to keep up with the medium are seldom films he would see if they didn't contain some special optical or audial innovation. And thus we arrive at 200 Motels.

Anything Frank Zappa isn't interested in – as far as sight and sound are concerned – probably isn't worth knowing. An hour spent listening to him talk about explorations he plans into music and film can be a heady experience; he's fascinated with the way audio artists have combined tones above and below our conscious range to produce sounds no human has ever heard before, and believes related visual surprises can be had from movies, now that their electronic future is a sure, if not quite immediate, development.

Zappa has capped his seven years of Mothers of Invention record and concert work with a film that is a landmark-required viewing for anyone concerned with tech advances in cinema. 200 Motels is also, for about two-thirds of its length, a very bad movie. Shot mostly during recording sessions for the album which accompanies its release, the film periodically jumps into little acting scenes wherein members of the Mothers wave their arms randomly while reading lines or silently mouth words other performers are speaking. Supposedly a surrealistic, personalized impression of a concert tour, its sets are grammar school makeshift, its emoting (even by Theodore Bikel and Ringo Starr) inconclusively improvisational, its writing and structure indulgent, childish, uncontrolled and blubbery.

All the same, it is important ... for this is the first feature film to be shot and edited entirely by videotape; and when, here and there, it takes advantage of the special effects possible only with video recording, it sets the imagination reeling.

During those musical numbers where Zappa has utilized his electronic equipment fully, 200 Motels suggests a world of excitement: In some sequences you can feel the editor's hand on his controls, blending multiple images from one console with another in an immediate, pulsing rhythm impossible to obtain in "normal" bits-and-pieces, scissors-and-blade film editing. The retention of certain portions of an image, the automatic matte work, visual delay, instant unlimited color substitution and highly subtle control ... these are all present in the movie, for those willing to undergo frequent ennui.

In all fairness, it should be noted that Zappa doesn't consider the movie a thing unto itself, but as one stage in an ongoing conceptual art project involving his group's recordings and live appearances. "For the audience that already knows and appreciates The Mothers," he says, "200 Motels will provide a logical extension of our concerts and recordings .... For those that can't stand The Mothers and have always felt we were nothing more than a bunch of tone-deaf perverts, 200 Motels will probably confirm their worst suspicions."

What is confirmed in the movie, beyond Zappa's sensitivity to the optical future of film, is his ability as a composer. The music 1s very good. Scored not only for his group, but an additional symphony orchestra and small chorus. it is harmonicly enthralling (this assumes that you don't get upset over a cantata to The Penis – a type of lyric you rather expect if you know anything of Zappa's work). Of course, the most advanced visua. elements in the film are light-show accompaniments to the music, which is its way of playing safe, forsaking originality and joining that intramural genre of the-camera-at-a-concert.

But it does show – or indicate – the possibilities when you link electronics to film. If some of these effects have been seen before, it has been on the home TV tube, never on a large theatre screen, and the film does demonstrate that a tape-tocelluloid transfer of quality is possible, even if you do need Europe's higher-resolution video equipment. Only occasionally is the vewer aware of scan lines, and then (I got the feeling) because Zappa wanted it that way. He expects movies to go into videotape permanently, as soon as proper theatre projection is feasible; in the meantime, his movie serves as a sampler of how much can be done with electronics.

That it doesn't serve at all well aesthetically is regrettable. Nevertheless, I would put 200 Motels on the list of films any zealot of the craft should experience. It will, I think, have a definite effect on production; at the very least, it's certainly some glimpse into the future. Grit your teeth and go.