Frank Zappa ... 200 Motels

By Hugh Gardner

Chinook, December 2, 1971

Frank Zappa made them do it, they claim. It's just another inverted joke among two hours of inverted jokes, of course, but then again it's perfectly true. No one else but Zappa could have made something like this happen. "200 Motels" is a direct visual extension of Zappa's bizzaro-poo-poo music and his frenzied satirical vision. There's never been anything quite like it before. If Zappa were not possessed of manic genius and compulsive energy, not to mention one of the most powerful production organizations in the rock industry, there wouldn't be anything like it now. "200 Motels" is a surrealist's meatball arcade, the multi-media triumph of one of the most overwhelming artistic personalities of our time.

There's really nothing strikingly new about the film, taking each of its elements one at a time. The theatre of the absurd was around long before Zappa (Alfred Jarry), and so were serial electronic music (Varese), filmic da da (Cocteau), colorful freaks and mimes (Fellini), kozmik kartoon freakouts (R. Crumb), musical satire (Kurt Weill), involved self-parody (John Barth), and videotape montage (T.V.). But Zappa's the first to put it all together in one flippy package, and the synthesis bears a stamp too intensely personal to be written off as a derivative grab-bag.

Zappa simply dominates everything in the movie and everybody connected with it. Nothing escapes his scathing parody, not even himself. As the members of his group tell it, there's just nothing they can say or do, however delicate or intimate, that Zappa might not use for "material." Nothing gets by; his fishy eyeball is always watching, surrounding everything going on around him like giant ragwork tent. The world is his circus, and he is its mirror, going beyond even Andy Warhol in milking the banal for art. Few people, even among pop heroes, are able to possess themselves and envelope others so completely. He did indeed make them do it.

The "plot" of the film is anything but promising; rock musicians on the road again, ho hum. But all similarity to other group-on-tour films ends there. "200 Motels" is a visual vehicle for Zappa's sardonic art, and nothing in it is played straight. There is no "plot," only unbound variations on a mythical theme. There are no "actors," only musicians playing around with charicatures of themselves. There are no "messages," either, since each isolated point you might grab onto is quickly undermined by another, ad infinitum, and if the real point seems to be the unending silliness of everything, there's something to refute that too: friends, Frank Zappa and the Mothers are deadly serious about their art.

But then again there aren't really any Mothers of Invention, nor any Frank Zappa either, for that matter. My fellow Americans, these Mothers you glorify are a bunch of vulgar, petty sexists, and the glamorous pool they swim in is filled with a vile foamy liquid called greed, among other names. And Zappa? Friends, that madman is up there tossing out a cardboard mannequin of himself, an alter-ego-cum Ringer Star-Larry the Dwarf, and lonely artists behind barbed wire; he's up there making all that arty noise, managing a multi-million dollar production like a computer and making pained jokes about computers, taking the piss out of hippie creeps while marketing the hippie creep he is himself . . . friends, this guy is up there pretending to be both a consumate artist and a slob like you and me!

Let's face it, the dude is outrageous no matter how long you wear your hair, and if you think different, you've been suckered. Who are the people who buy his work? Longhairs, et cetera, And who are the chief targets of his ridicule? The same, et al. Altogether, Zappa is the ultimate insult comedian of psychedelia, and he's making money at it like crazy. A most ordinary sort of clown to be sure, he makes himself a colossus by reducing everything around him to rubble. Okay, so why should we want to trot down to the Esquire Theatre and see the show of some nihilistic con-man? Because it is also one of the most stunning musical and visual feasts we are ever likely to enjoy. And Zappa, damn his fishy eyeballs, knows it.