Madhouse in "200 Motels"

By Bill Sherman

Vidette, February 17, 1972

("200 Motels," directed and written by Frank Zappa, photography by Tony Palmer, produced by Jerry Good and Herb Cohen, with Theodore Bikel, Ringo Starr, the Mothers of Invention.)

"After all is said and done, it's Frank's movie.''

It's hard for be to be objective about this film; one of my most nurtured vices has been a love of Zappa and the Mothers, and this vice has weathered much, including several friends' snide comments.

"200 Motels" is a film so tightly adhered and wrapped around Zappa's ego, that any reaction to it is a reaction towards a personality. Those who have never liked the man should definitely steer away from the movie. Or maybe they shouldn't.

The reason is simple. "200 Motels" contains all the excessive virtues and flaws of its maker. Nobody likes all of the film. I have a suspicion one isn't reacting properly if they do. Nobody understands all of it. The film is fragmentary, Dadaistic in the tradition of the twenties, and esoteric (albums, other rock stars, and such references, are flung about). I suspect that parts of the music (which the film contains a wealth of, in "concert" and as part of the background) will jar the iminitiated. I suspect Pantagraph critic Tony Holloway won't even see the film.

Most of the more "respectable" critics (such as one finds in the "On the Town" section of Playboy) have either avoided or panned the movie. Zappa used crudeness as a didactic tool, to shock and definitely offend. How one reacts will depend on their personal philosophic outlook. (A magazine as prudish as Playboy can be expected to react negatively.)

For me, the scenes that work less are the most blatant (as in a scene where two groupies shout sexual organ synonyms and are answered by a chorus). One of the techniques of Theatre of the Absurd has been the repetition of words into banality – single words shouted out again and again. (Ionesco, for example, uses this often.) It has always struck me as a particularly obvious technique, and its use in the film bothers me.

Other people, however, don't agree.

Another problem is the attempt at being "California hip" in the film that has always plagued Zappa's work anc, at times, reaches the level of The Monkees. I overlook these scenes when I remember the film, because, like most else in the movie, they aren't that long, and because there are other segments I so much like.

Sort of like going in a two-hour rap with someone who talks so last he can't be argued with. Already he's onto something else, before one can get a sentence out.

Well. What the film is all about, anyway, is the fantasies of a rock band on tour, specifically, the Mothers of Invention. More specifically, Frank Zappa. What we get is an archetypical town called Centerville ("a real nice place to raise your kids up"), a large dwarf named Larry (Ringo Starr) who "dresses up funny" like Frank Zappa, a satanic figure (Theodore Bikel) with a dry ice smoking briefcase an Indian redneck, a walking vacuum cleaner, newts, groupies, the Royal Philharmonic, and plenty of scatology (which is a critical euphemism for dirty words).

There's also a cartoon in the middle.

So much for the plot.

"200 Motels" is a visual madhouse. Zappa filmed it quickly, not having all that much money, over videotape, and it doesn't look it one bit. Much of the movie contains optical effects that emanate from the action – patterns, designs, tints, prismic effects. Sometimes it takes a while to get it all in, (what Kesey call "sensory overload") and sometimes the mind doesn't grasp quickly enough. That's okay. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times "critic, wrote that he was totally baffled by the film and that he didn't consider it that important. Neither do I.

Later in the week, I intend to go see "The Godfather." When I go, it will be with a different set of expectations than those I used to see "200 Motels." Films cannot be approached all in the same way or even criticized on the same basis. Viewers who criticize the Zappa using standards they don't openly acknowledge as arbitrary – standards of what they consider art or good taste to be – are being open to it.

"200 Motels" creates its own rules.

For a variety of reason, then, "200 Motels" emerges as a difficult film. To review and view. But worthwhile. Believe me, worthwhile.