200 Motels

By Mike Mahan

Door, January 27, 1972

Frank Zappa, whose wizardry has transcended most ordinary musical bounds and brought forth some startlingly original ideas, has now created a film, 200 Motels. Although the film is probably more a product of Zappa's inspiration than of his guiding hand, he is credited as writer and director and, therefore, must take the blame for the result.

Zappa's music is a complex product of multiple musical forms. He carefully mixes jazz, classical and rock elements into a highly structured framework for a detailed examination of artistic and social elements. Close attention to detail is of absolute necessity for it marks the difference between a conglomeration of meaningless elements thrown together to dumbfound the audience and the very complicated form of Zappa's art.

On the stage Zappa's performances take on a character of their own, for he is one of the few people who recognizes the inherent differences between live and recorded music. Each musical rendition is arranged to fit the time, place and audience. Besides just the music, Zappa always puts on a show of unique character so that every performance is a work of art in itself. Performing music live is a special medium in which Zappa excels. His real gift, however, lies in his ability to recognize social phenomenon and to incorporate within his works elements of social commentary, while maintaining the artistic level. In doing so, and in choosing the elements of his attention, he has clearly and carefully defined his own role. He always treats his public life style as if it were an art form in itself.

200 Motels was born out of this life style, and it seems to have been a well-calculated attempt to fit Zappa's well-defined image. It fails, however, as an individual work and, therefore, in view of his past record fails even as part of a larger work. The complexities of Zappa's works usually represent the subtle workings of his imagination, but 200 Motels seems to be a haphazard mixture of a giant home movie and a liberated TV Variety show.

The film's style seems to be basically representative of television. The original filming was done on video tape and later transferred to 35 mm film. The seemingly impressive optical effects, which would have been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming if done during printing, were done in the TV camera during shooting. This technique, although allowing complex opticals at near zero increase in cost, seems to have been applied here without thought, exactly as it is in its television context. Visual direction is not credited to Zappa, yet as filmmaker he must have exercised some control over the application of a technique which so greatly affects style. Therefore, he must be held responsible.

Similarly sloppy editing also mars 200 Motels and adds to the impression of a TV-homemovie. The cutting was done in less than a week, and no attempt seems to have been made to achieve any sort of editorial perspective. Sequences have been spliced together into an amateurish sort of continuity as if the editor cared about nothing but putting pieces of film into a projectable length.

In spite of the many electronic advantages of video tape, the camera seems to have been treated as no more than a recording device. The performances it has recorded are the self-conscious hammings with those unrehearsed unspontaneous qualities of the home movie. These together with the lack of meaningful cutting combine to define the film's form as that of a home movie.

It is not inherent in the film that TV style and home movie form be faults. It is the lack of any thought as to their use and any structure from which to expound upon them that makes them so bad. The style and form are borrowed from their original sources because they need no thought to be applied. What is tragic is that Zappa, who has been able to explore 50's rock and roll culture using its music, to use acid rock to look at acid culture, to involve many diverse elements in his music, does not see his own film clearly enough to realize the potential it offers within its framework to explore television and/or the home movie. He does not relate to other films, their styles, nor their forms, instead he treats the medium as if he were a TV freak, entirely satisfied with its current condition. Zappa, the genius, has taken a new medium and dealt with it as a toy and not as a tool, and in doing so he has not only missed a great opportunity for a work of art, he has also undermined his artistic integrity by failing to even try.