10, 50, 100, 200 Motels

By Doug Larkins

Fifth Estate, December 23, 1971 - January 12, 1972

"Oh, my god, what are we singing about?"  –  Mark Volman, from 200 Motels

Frank Zappa's new movie, 200 Motels, is a humorous indictment of the whole pop star, rock touring scene. At the same time, Zappa also pokes fun at both himself and his group, the Mothers of Invention. In the film, Zappa, played by Ringo Starr, is characterized as a mad genius. The rest of the Mothers, played by themselves, are portrayed as a group totally exploited by Zappa, who is "always watching us, and using what we do and say to write new music."

In the beginning of the film, Theodore Bikel, actor and once-popular folk singer, states that, "The movie is about how touring can make you crazy." This theme is carried through as parts of the film show show the loneliness of pop band members when they hit unfamiliar towns. One song called This Town is a Seated Tuna Sandwich, is about "Centerville, a nice place to bring your kids up." Two of the band members, Volman and Kaylan, walk around the town in a stunned state looking at the locals who drink beer in the Redneck Bar, twirl batons, or watch television.

Two women who work in a local head shop watch the guys walking around and comment that nothing is more depressing than to go out with horny rock musicians. "They salivate all over your body," one complains, "and they're all perverted." The other woman, however, is plainly interested.

While all this is going on, the film sequence out on the street is shot employing an interesting technique, giving the appearance of viewing life through water, with the ripples continually breaking up into checkered patterns.

From an artistic standpoint the film is essentially your basic psychedelic film- making spectacle. Scenes of the band playing are stroboscopically flashing, cutting back and forth, using dark and then very intense lit images. All of this is very trying on the eyes, without being especially valuable for effects-or for the general advancement of cinematic art.

One technique, however, was original. At points the film would have the hand of a band member overexposed while the rest of him was in sharp focus. As the hand moved, an afterimage trailed behind. But most of the film techniques, even when eye-catching, were not very relevant except to produce – solely through eye-strain – the chaotic feeling of a rock band on tour. Often the camera work looked like a Russ Meyer job.

The plot proceeds as the bass player, Martin Lickert, gets turned on to some bad dope and freaks on a bum trip. The guys in the band try to help him get back together before Zappa finds out, writes a song about it, and forces Martin to relive it on stage. Too late! Zappa gets hip and the result is a song called Dental Hygiene.

A cartoon section by Charles Swenson around the song Dental Hygiene is one of the best sections of the film, both visually and in cynical-humor content. All the things that the band members talk about before Martin's bad trip are brought out in the cartoon – in particular their fear that Zappa is exploiting them and making the fan view them as unserious characters.

The theme of "looking for the action" is elaborated upon at length by Zappa to show how ridiculous the drive to JUST get laid really is. Each guy combs his hair in front of a mirror, trying face glow "like Leon Russell uses," and wearing a new tie-dyed, T-shirt guaranteed to catch the girls' eyes. At the door to a place "where the actions is", the band members all get stuck in the door trying to be the first one in.

Songs like What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning, Penis Dimension, and Half A Dozen Provocative Squats poke fun at the alienated way pop stars and groupies relate to one another – and they're not alone.

The best parts of the film visually were the set and costumes, which were designed by Zappa. Throughout the film strange beings, like a vacuum-cleaner man and several giant newt men, wandered about without explanation for their presence –  probably symbolic rock reporters. All in all the sets were a continuation of the Mothers' album covers. The entire performance was done opera-style on a single huge stage, surrounded by barbed wire to simulate a concentration camp.

The musical score for the film is difficult to categorize. Many of the songs are simply good Zappa rock-and-roll. But much of the music is orchestral, and composed in new styles quite different from what most rock fans are accustomed to hearing. The "new" music is similar to some 12-tone music written by Webern and somewhat like the music of Lucas Foss. It is quite good and demonstrates that Frank Zappa, without being a virtuoso show-off, is quite competent to compose more than his very high-quality rock and jazz.

The entire movie is an opera about the rock world. If the new music is separated from the rock, the value of the whole work is lost. Unlike the music of the two Beetle films, Zappa has composed a fully integrated score. The variety of music offered represents a union of jazz, rock, and "new" music.

The film will undoubtedly reach a large audience due to the popularity of Zappa and the Mothers, but one wonders if the total work will be understood or appreciated. There is little story to latch onto, so that it is difficult to easily get the message.

But, apart from the eye strain, musically the film is quite an experience, and through seeing the film, listening to the recording at home becomes an even more rewarding session. Zappa is trying to show that the mad whirl of the pop star world is mostly just plain mad, but as always he seems to retain a sense of humor about it.