Zap! Zap! Zappa!
By Bill Gray
Frank Zappa in Don Mills? At the Holiday Inn?
"It's not much but it's home" he says, gesturing inward at the factory-sealed interior of his $21 single. And glancing around at the open suitcases strewn across the dresser, the books and tape cartridges stacked along the floor, and the young pretty in a red sweater stretched out on the bedcovers, who could argue?
It's the road, man, the road. The Mothers of Invention are on tour again. One night they play to a full house at Massey Hall, tomorrow they head for Providence. And you know what? Who cares? Because half the guys in the band probably think it's the other way around. It's all the same. Every town's the same from the inside of a Holiday Inn.
As Zappa himself says, "When we go on tour life in the group begins to resemble life in the army. Each concert is a campaign and it's very possible not to know where you are at any given moment. Sitting in your room, dealing socially most of the time with other guys in the group, you might as well be home in Los Angeles. We seem to carry a 'mystery bubble' of L.A. consciousness with us at all times and inside of that bubble, strange things happen."
Which is probably as clear and concise an explanation as you could hope to find of 200 Motels, the new Frank Zappa movie featuring The Mothers along with such assorted compatables as Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Theodore Bikel, and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, essaying the respective roles of Larry The Dwarf, The Hot Nun, Rance Muhammitz, and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As a film it's bizarre. As anything it's bizarre. Variously described as a "Fantasy Opera", a "Surrealistic Documentary", and "A Total Freak-out" (this by a well-meaning but somewhat over-exuberant PR type), it is seen by its creator in a press release so doggedly articulate as to almost defy comprehension, as "an extension and projection of the band's specialized view of and participation in the outermost fringes of the Rock and Roll consciousness", which, simply stated, means it's a Musical.
Whatever it is – and probably only Frank Zappa knows for sure – it does deal with such fundamental, far out, right on, subjects as Groupies, Life on The Road, In-Group Inter-Personal Relationships, Macro-Biotic Food, and Tie-Dye Shirts. All this plus much more extracted from the essential, collective, life experiences of the Mother of Invention; codified, stylized, interpreted, embellished, projected, inflated, boiled in ammonia, and photographed in the most vividly colored and composed images the human eye has ever experienced. At least that's what the man says. And when he's talking about 200 Motels, the man's enthusiasm knows no bounds.
"It's a beautiful looking film, there's no question about that. I mean whatever else it is, it looks great. I've seen it four times now since it was completed and color printed and I'm still awed by it. How can I describe it? It's like the first time you saw a full length cartoon. It has that kind of impact.
"But then it's something brand new, it's unique, you realize that. It wasn't filmed, it was taped. It's the first feature film to be shot on color video-tape and transferred to film for release. It's a whole new technique, a whole new process, something that's never been tried before on this scale.
"We did it that way because we had to; there was no choice. Given the script and the highly stylized, surreal nature of 200 Motels, we needed a kind of super visual approach that only television-style VTR cameras with their monitor facilities and their capacity for in-camera effects could give us. A lot of the time during the shooting we were just experimenting, fooling around, pushing buttons, twisting dials, scrambling the images, superimposing, fading in and out, concocting multiple dissolves; the pictorial range of video-tape is enormous. And the great advantage is that with monitors for every camera, you can see exactly what you're getting the instant you're getting it. You can create and adjust as you go along. You can really do anything you want to, and know right away whether or not it's working.
"The problem in the past has always been in the transferring process, the transferring of images from tape to film. Color quality and picture deliniation have always been very uneven. But there's a company in England, a subsidiary of Technicolor called Vidtronics, that's come up with an incredible new system that gives perfect results. When we first saw what they could do we couldn't believe it, but we knew that was the answer for 200 Motels.
"In fact they've had the system for a while now but it shows you where the film industry is at that nobody until now has had nerve enough to try it for a major project. Everyone's so afraid to take a chance, they play it safe, do it like they've always done it. I mean when we came along, Vidtronics was on the verge of giving up. They knew they had a great process, but they couldn't convince anybody to use it. And in fact on our very first day of shooting, they called us up to tell us to forget it, they were packing it in. Only some fast negotiations convinced them to stick it out.
"And now I understand they're using a print of 200 Motels as their sample reel to interest other film makers. I've heard that at least three other films are getting ready to go into production in England using the same technique."
A glow of self-satisfaction shines forth from the face of Frank Zappa, film pioneer. And the statistics come rolling out. The whole movie was shot in a grand total of seven days from a script numbering some 320 pages (over twice normal length but as Zappa puts it, "every angle was planned to the fraction"). It was tape-edited for eleven days, film edited for three months, and as a result of all this hustle and speed, came in at $40,000 under budget. The figures are impressive, and Zappa is clearly impressed.
But meanwhile the hymn to Videotape continues.
"It allowed us to move quickly. Because of the monitors we could be shooting two or three scenes simultaneously in different parts of the studio and still be right on top of everything. Everywhere you looked there was something going on all the time. It was chaotic, but it worked, and it never could have been done by conventional methods.
"It must have seemed strange, though, to anyone associated with normal film production. Wilfred Brambell, the old character actor, was supposed to be in the picture, you know, but when he came out and actually saw what we were doing he almost passed out. He ran off screaming that he'd never seen anything so weird in his life."
The soft, sedated peel of the Holiday Inn Contempra-phone brings a sudden halt to the monologue and Zappa decamps to the bed – long since abandoned by the lady in red who is now in the bathroom, typing!! – to talk business with the Coast. It's something about percentages and rights and the French subtitles for the Paris premier of 200 Motels. Whatever, he's very much on top of it. For this is not your average rock and roll musician, stumbling from town to town in an air-tight euphoric daze, totally, irrevocably, stoned on his own careening ego, oblivious to the slick little men in the wings counting his money, paying his bills, slowly, steadily, draining him dry. No, Frank Zappa is a man supremely in control of his own destiny, a man who can wheel and deal with the best of them.
For example, with 200 Motels, he and his associates insisted on and got a deal from United Artists whereby they and they alone are responsible for all the public relations and merchandizing connected with the film. UA, who financed and are distributing the film, can do nothing in the way of publicizing or promoting it without Zappa's approval. And thus far at least, every line of copy, every picture, every radio and television commercial to be released for 200 Motels has come straight from The Man himself. In an industry where the money men are notoriously unresponsive to the ideas and wishes of their creative underlings, it's something of an unprecedented situation.
"Have you heard the radio spot?" he asks, flipping a switch on the cartridge machine and releasing a sudden orchestral cascade, broken just as suddenly by the mock-operatic chanting of Mothers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan extolling the dramatic virtues of the forth-coming extravaganza 200 Motels.
It's a very strange commercial.
"And the album," he says handing the glistening cello-wrapped package across the table for a quick perusal, a two-record set featuring such evocative titles as Dental Hygiene Dilemma, Penis Dimension, Half A Dozen Provocative Squats, and Does This Sort Of Life Look Interesting To You?
"All the music in the picture was recorded live, as shot. None of this lip-synching to playback crap. It's the first musical in 40 years to be made that way. We had two complete sound crews, over 50 microphones stationed all over the set, and to bring it all together we rented the Rolling Stones portable studio unit with sixteen track mixing facilities. The sound is totally authentic.
"But to get back to the album, it's my favorite of all the thirteen we've made. It's music that I've been writing off and on for about four years now, mainly in motel rooms after concerts. It's orchestral, choral stuff, music that frankly was impossible to get played without devising some sort of framework within which to fit it. Which is actually how the whole 200 Motels project came about in the first place. I had this music, I wanted to hear it, so I concocted a theatrical structure for it which could utilize it and react to it both visually and dramatically. All the elements of the film are organically integrated with each other, the music, the dialogue, the action, the pictorial technique. You can't separate one from another, they're inextricably linked and bound together.
"The dialogue, which stems mainly from seven years of overheard conversations within the group, is treated very much in a musical, orchestral fashion. I mean as a piece of music is composed of themes, of patterns of notes, stated, transposed, inverted, shaped in any number of ways, so the script, composed of lumps of dialogue, is treated in the same way. Thus the narrative – strictly speaking not a narrative at all since there is no stress on chronological continuity – is formally tied to the music and vice versa, you see?"
"Well yes, but . . ."
"Actually, 200 Motels could just as easily have been a theatrical piece, a stage musical except for the fact that in that medium, the audience is too remote. I'm interested in the small, intimate details, the raised eyebrow, the tiny facial reactions that only a close-up camera can spot."
Across the room, the bathroom door clicks open and Red Sweater emerges, an expression of benign disinterest on her face. She slides over to Zappa's chair and slumps down on the floor beside him, wordless, unobtrusive, but very much there, a hint perhaps that the allotted interview time is quickly expiring?
And still the essential question remains unasked.
"How on earth did you ever get anyone to pay for something like this?"
"It took a while. The first companies we went to, including our record distributor Warner Brothers, just didn't want to know. As soon as we'd start to explain what we wanted to do they'd go into a state of shock.
"Finally though we got to United Artists and met their president, David Picker. All we had was a ten page treatment, a box of tapes, and some press clippings in case he'd never heard of us. He told us he'd get back to us and a week later he did, called us up and told us we had a deal. Thirty days later we had a budget and a signed contract. I would imagine that's something of a record.
"And I must say they were very good to us. They never came around the set, never sent out spies to see what we were doing, never asked any questions, they just gave us our money and told us to go to it.
"Of course the first time they saw it they just about collapsed. I mean they hated it, just hated it. Old style film executives, you know, 'I'm square and I'm proud. Show me'. They didn't know what was going on. But it was really an unfair test. It was a black and white work print complete with splices and bad sound and with none of the special effects showing. Now that they've seen the completed color version they're much happier, or so I'm told."
Indeed they probably are. All of the advance screenings of 200 Motels were rousing successes. The word of mouth has been good and as Variety will probably put it, BO prospects are Torrid.
For Frank Zappa of course it's the beginning of a whole new era. From here on in it's onward and upwards and already he's making plans for future productions, future enterprises. He may even get to complete some old ones. Uncle Meat, an abortive 16mm film venture that finally had to be abandoned for lack of funds a couple of years ago, is still around. It wouldn't take much to finish it. But who knows? There are any number of possibilities, and the fact that they all depend on 200 Motels doesn't phase Zappa a bit. He's confident. He knows it's good. He's seen it four times and he loves it. Every minute of it.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net