I Saw A Film!

Fifty years ago the Mothers of Invention with their genius ringleader Zappa created this document, one part disjointed surrealist play, one part homage to the music, and two parts go-f&%$-yourself as an ostensible story about what it was like being on tour with the band. Narrated by Ringo Star (dressed as Frank Zappa, but referred to as a dwarf) and doused in trippy film effects (which I’ve read were state of the art at the time, but are basically all the filters on any editing app on a phone today) we’re dropped off in Centerville and teased at length about all the expectations the long-hairs (though not druggies) would be accomplishing in a sort of square everytown, USA. As I’ve written before, Zappa grew up with a fondness for lampooning the “It can’t happen here.” attitudes of the tight-ass controls leveled by the old guard in “normal” white-Christian America. He’d been the victim of some serious prejudice and economic oppression as a young man and he never let go of it. But when you think about it it’s artists like Zappa we have to thank for blowing open the doors and windows of fear-mongering, art-hating America. Zappa is a result of the fight against oppressive fifties era normalcy, which Tom Robbins described as beige and the apogee of culture marked by the pine-scented candle.

Most of 200 Motels feels like a giant inside joke devoted to entertaining the Mothers themselves. We come along out of our love of the music, and there is quite a lot of music of all kinds. Jimmy Carl Black is well featured, the “Indian of the group”, demanding money and beer to anyone who will listen, and hurling himself at a made-up LA music paper. In some of these sequences Zappa himself is on the drums. Zappa devotees will know all these characters from Vollman to the Underwoods, the Mothers were a set of beloved characters in themselves.

The film feels like a visual representation of something like We’re Only In It For the Money, and presages music video in the grand weirdo / artistic style of Diogenes of Sinope (possibly). I think of those ancient Greek philosophers every time I hear the position arguments, never backing down, entrenched. Diogenes, of course, famously dispensed with social niceties, masturbated publicly and maintained a dead dog as a pet. Zappa falls short, thankfully, of being quite this outlandish, it isn’t necessary, but if pushed his push-back was legendary. Zappa tore up the boundaries and played a mean guitar. It’s all you could want in your artistic rock culture.

Running free on Prime. Think about how hard it used to be to be able to see something like this! Be forewarned it’s not for the kiddos, there’s some fairly rank language and ideas, though, not so much imagery. The best of it is when it’s just video effects over some great Zappa and Mothers playing. But that’s me, I always love to see a band at work and get an idea of their artistic vision.

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