Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS May Be The Most WTF Movie Experience Ever

To the elation of film buffs and 70’s art rock fans all over, MGM has just released a new 35 MM print of Frank Zappa’s 1971 freak-fest flick 200 MOTELS. The film played earlier tonight as part of the “Cool Classics @ The Colony” series at the Colony Theater in Raleigh and I was very anxious to see it for the first time. When I was much younger I went through a bit of a Zappa phase, yet while I collected dozens of his albums somehow I never saw 200 MOTELS. I had wondered what it was exactly. Well, after seeing it tonight I see that it’s not a concert film, though there are long sequences that make it seem otherwise, it’s not a tour documentary, and it sure isn’t any kind of musical with a linear narrative. Actually I’m still trying to figure out what the Hell it is.

Despite that it was “written” (that’s highly debatable), and directed by Zappa with wall-to-wall music of his composing, it’s really more his band’s – The Mothers Of Invention’s movie than his ultimately. The faces and voices of Martin Volman (Flo), Eddie (Howard Kaylan) and Jeff (Martin Lickert) dominate the screen with random pop-ins from ex-Beatle Ringo Starr as Larry the Dwarf who is oddly outfitted as Zappa. There’s also Keith Moon (infamous drummer from The Who) as a nun, Theodore Bikel as the Devil, and famous Hollywood groupies Pamela Miller, Miss Lucy Offerall and Miss Janet Neville as, well, groupies.

To complain that this movie is a mess misses the mark because it’s a mess by design. the comedic musical numbers like “Mystery Roach” and the Indian of the group (that’s how hi introduces himself) Jimmy Carl Black’s over-the-top redneck vocal on “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” are surrounded by the sketchiest of sketches involving the oppresive “Centeville community” and a lengthy discourse on the “Penis Dimension”. Then there’s a cartoon called “Dental Hygiene Movie” that may stand as one of the most amusing bits in the heavy mist of this wild offkilter “happening” disguised as a movie. Or is it a movie disguised as a “happening”? I dunno.

Noted as the first feature-length movie to be shot on video tape and later transferred to 35mm Technicolor film, 200 MOTELS is on surface a trippy experience. It sinks in though pretty early on that Zappa didn’t not partake in, in fact distained, the psychedelic drugs of the era. The footage is screwed around with considerably – sped up slowed down with certain actions repeated over and over, but not in a way that would soothe hippies’ mindsets whatever their level of chemical enhancement.

In his 3 star review (from the original release), Roger Ebert said that it was “not the kind of movie you have to see more than once. It is the kind of movie you can barely see once.” I have to agree with that. Though I know that this has appeared to be a less than stellar review, 200 MOTELS is still somehow an experience I recommend. It’s like some half remembered dream in which Monty Python silliness is filtered through Sid and Marty Kroft imagery with what sounds like Spike Jones discovering funk blaring overhead. If a circulating print comes to your area – check it out. Sure, it’s dated and weird as all get out, but it’s still an extremely worthwhile demented diversion.

More later…

IN BRUGES & More Film Babble Follow-up Fun!

In the spirit of continuing the pre-Spring cleaning I started last post I thought I’d go through my email bag and follow-up on some past threads but first let me tell you about another fine film that is in limited release and unfortunately being overlooked:

IN BRUGES (Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2008)

When I saw the trailer I feared that this would be one in a long line of Quentin Tarentino/Guy Ritchie ripoffs – you know wisecracking pop culture savvy figures of the underworld caught up in a series of crafty quirky possibly silly scenarios but IN BRUGES is so much better than that. Sure, it does have those elements but the restraint in flash and the edgy funny screenplay fuels a sweetly character driven piece that expertly balances dark comedy with a solid suspense yarn. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are two hitmen who after botching a job in London are sent to the medieval city of Bruges in Belgium to lie low. Gleeson makes the best of the situation to take in some of the local sights but Farrell, in one of his best performances as the daft put-upon Ray, grumbles “If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.” He even remarks: “Maybe that’s what hell is, an entire eternity spent in Bruges.” As they wait for further instructions from their boss Harry (an energized and hilariously intense Ralph Fiennes) their lives become intertwined with a few colorful characters including French actress Clémence Poésy as Farrell’s love interest and Jordan Prentice as a racist dwarf actor named Jimmy *.

*an uncredited Peter Dinklage (THE STATION AGENT, DEATH AT A FUNERAL) also as an “Dwarf Actor” appears briefly.

It would be wrong to spill any more about the plot – the swift surprises in the film’s crafty construction should not be spoiled. Everything seems to have nicely aligned in every department for this sure to be a future cult film. Even the score by Coen Brothers regular Carter Burwell should be noted as exceptional. It is incredibly encouraging that a new filmmaker can take the tired stale crime caper and reinvigorate it into something as satisfyingly fresh and vital as IN BRUGES. As the new to the scene writer/director Martin McDonagh is definitely a name to remember. I’m sure that as word of mouth spreads his next movie-film will have a much wider release. You would have had to grown up on a farm or be retarded to dismiss this as another PULP FICTION wannabe or a LOCK, STOCK… look-alike – this is no such pretender.

Okay, so now it’s time to look back over Film Babble Blog past and follow-up on some of those much commented on lists.

In my post 10 Movie Moments That Broke The 4th Wall (August 22, 2007) I told by many fine film loving folk that I missed a really crucial and much loved Movie Moment:

HAROLD AND MAUDE (Dir. Hal Ashby, 1971) I can’t believe I left this one off! It’s one of my favorite films ever and it’s such a wonderful example of “breaking the frame”. Harold (Bud Cort) having successfully scared off another computer dating candidate by staging another of his phony suicide attempts looks directly at us in a “see what I just did?” manner. His sly satisifaction is short lived however as he recoils into timid submission upon turning and see his Mother’s disapproving glare. The passionate piano plucking intro of Cat Steven’s “I Think I See The Light” perfectly punctuates the shot and takes us into the next scene. Just about as good as film making gets. Ah, Ashby – you’ll never be forgotten.

I got a lot of feedback about my post 20 Great Modern Movie Cameos (June 5, 2007) – so much that I already did a follow-up – The Cameo Countdown Continues (June 20, 2007) but there was one delicious guest appearance that a bunch of people have called me on – Frank Zappa in the beautifully bizarre Monkees movie HEAD (Dir. Bob Rafelson, 1968). It’s another favorite of mine so boy is my face beet red! After Davy Jones’s “Daddy’s Boy” dance number Zappa, who for some reason is walking a cow on a leash, appears (credited as “The Critic”) from out of a crowd of extras on the studio back lot to offer his comments: “That song was pretty white.” Davy responds: “So am I; what can I tell you?” Zappa continues “You’ve been working on your dancing though…doesn’t leave much time for your music. You should spend more time on it because the youth of America depends on you to show the way.” To this, Zappa’s cow with an imposed cartoon mouth says in a weird accent: “Monkees is the craziest people!” That aside was to the camera so the scene counts as both a cameo and a moment that broke the 4th wall. Thanks to Sarah R., Stephanie W., Tim Murcer, George F., and especially Everette K. for not letting this issue go!

This one came from a recent email from Michael E. of Illinois referring to a post I did last summer called Those Damn DirecTV Movie Tie-In Ads – Offensive To Film Buffs? (July 19, 2007). Michael alerted me to a new DirecTV ad that features Kathy Bates reprising her Oscar winning role as Annie Wilkes from MISERY. Depicting the setup to the most horrific scene in the movie – the one where Bates cripples James Caan (who only appears from the original footage) with a sledgehammer – this commercial is the most misguided by far. Bates must have felt some hesitation to exploit her breakthrough performance for a satellite dish outfit. I guess on the other hand it was just another day’s work and one that most likely got her an awesome high def TV hook-up.

For my post 10 Self Referential Moments In The Films Of George Lucas/Steven Spielberg (Oct. 18th, 2007) I really missed a doozey! In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on the wall in the background of the Egyptian temple that Indian Jones finds the Ark in you can see C3PO and R2D2 illustrated in Hieroglyphic form – like Club Obi Wan in TEMPLE OF DOOM this definitely ties together the…hey, wait! I never did a post about self referential moments in Lucas/Spielberg movies! Hmm, maybe I should. That new INDIANA JONES and the long ass title nobody will use * is going to be out soon so it may be a good idea…


* Actually INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL – but c’mon! Nobody is gonna to use it – it’ll be like “2 tickets to Indy 4.”

More later…