200 Motels Can Make You Crazy

By Matt Groening

Cooper Point Journal, April 29, 1976

Frank Zappa's 200 MOTELS is being presented Friday, April 30, in Lecture Hall One. Shows are scheduled at 3, 7, and 9:30 p.m. Admission is 50 cents.

The essence of 200 MOTELS is very difficult to capture. Frank Zappa's 1971 feature-length movie operates on so many levels that isolating any element will not do it justice. It is a musical/visual/comic extravaganza that compresses time and space into a 99-minute pulsating lump, combining real incidents and Zappa's fantasies into a surrealistic documentary unlike any other movie ever seen.

Frank Zappa has been educating and entertaining the world with his rock group the Mothers of Invention since 1964. His compositions, which link classical music with some of the more popular varieties, are at their best unsurpassed by any serious composer alive today. Absurdity and humor engulf almost everything Zappa does, but the perceptive listener will discover that behind the controlled madness Zappa is deadly serious.

200 MOTELS is Zappa's most ambitious art event to date. Videotaped in seven days in an English studio, it is the first feature-length film to utilize recent advances in tape-to-film technology. The result is a film with a unique look, full of spectacular effects unobtainable in any other way. The lenses give the film a flatness of image that is perfect for the distorted vision Zappa wants us to experience.

This distorted vision revolves around what it is like to be in the Mothers of Invention. "Touring can make you crazy," explains the narrator at the beginning of the movie. "That is what 200 MOTELS is all about." After crossing time zones from one continent to another, sleeping in the sterile dungeons known as motel rooms for months on end, and eating the same greasy mystery burgers night after night, all towns blend into one gigantic, malignant Centerville, U.S.A.

The Centerville in 200 MOTELS is an extension of Zappa's real-life nightmare. "A Real Nice Place to Raise Your Kids Up" is the town motto, and its cafes have names like Redneck Eats. "This town," sing the Mothers, "is a sealed tuna sandwich."

Zappa himself appears in the film only during certain musical sequences. Larry the Dwarf, played by Ringo Starr, serves as a bogus Zappa the rest of the time. Theodore Bikel plays Rance Muhammitz, a uniformed Devil who tempts various Mothers with strange food from a steaming briefcase. The Who's Keith Moon plays the Hot Nun, Jimmy Carl Black is Lonesome Cowboy Burt, and assorted underlings romp about as newts, Ku Klux Klanners, and vacuum cleaners. The monolith from Stanley Kubrick's 2001 makes a cameo appearance.

Zappa's cynical humor leaves no one unscathed, including himself. Some will be offended by his misogynistic tendencies, but he makes fun of men and their sexuality as well. The song "Penis Dimension" satirizes the anxious concern of men about the size of their genitals, and throughout the movie the musicians' quest for instant sexual gratification is mercilessly exposed,

The orchestral music, played by the Royal Philharmonic, swirls throughout the movie in jagged, rapidly changing time signatures, and recalls the works of Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, as well as the dozens of other composers they have influenced. The rock music is well-played and gives Zappa the opportunity to get off a few brief but brilliant guitar solos. Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly with the Turtles, lead the singing throughout and are at the center of most of the comedy sequences.

All too soon Theodore Bikel turns to the camera and says, "This, as you might have guessed, is the end of the movie." The entire cast is gathered with the orchestra in the Centerville Recreational Facility (a concentration camp) to help croon the closing inspirational prayer. "Lord, have mercy on the fate of this movie," Bikel sings, and gathering momentum, the chorus joins in:

Lord, have mercy
On the hippies and faggots
And the dykes and the weird
Little children they grow
Help the black man
Help the poor man
Help the milk man
Help the door man
Help the lonely, neglected
Old farts that I know.

But, you may ask, will I, a normal person, enjoy 200 MOTELS? Frank Zappa answers:

"For the audience that already knows and appreciates the Mothers, 200 MOTELS will provide a logical extension to our concerts and recordings. For the audience that doesn't know, doesn't care, but still takes a chance every once in a while on a new idea, 200 MOTELS will provide a surprising introduction to the group and its work.

"For those who can't stand the Mothers and have always felt we were nothing more than a bunch of tone-deaf perverts, 200 MOTELS will probably confirm their worst suspicions."

Rarely seen animation by Cal Schenkel is on the same bill with 200 MOTELS. Schenkel, whose brilliant drawings and paintings were featured in a special exhibition in the Library Art Gallery until last week, designed the "Dental Hygiene Dilemma" cartoon sequence in 200 MOTELS, the best part of the movie. Cartoons scheduled include a Frank Zappa TV commercial and an excerpt from the film The Human Ape.