Tag Archives: Experimental

266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”–Frank Zappa, Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986
Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tony Palmer, Frank Zappa

FEATURING: Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, , , Keith Moon, Jimmy Carl Black, Frank Zappa

PLOT: A collection of absurd sketches about life on the road as a rock band, 200 Motels offers very little in the way of plot. Running bits include Ringo Starr playing a large dwarf enlisted to portray Zappa, Theodore Bikel as a Mephistophelean figure trying to get the band to sign documents in blood, and Keith Moon as a groupie dressed as a nun; amidst the chaos, the band members constantly try to either get laid, get high, or scheme to form spin-off bands. In between, Zappa and the band perform musical numbers like “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and Zappa conducts an orchestra playing his avant-garde classical compositions.

Still from 200 Motels (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Frank Zappa thought up the idea for the film while on tour with the Mothers of Invention. He wrote much of the music in 200 Motels from motel rooms while on tour.
  • The opening credits explain the split in the directorial duties, with Tony Palmer credited for “visuals” and Zappa for directing the “characterizations.”
  • Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (“Flo and Eddie”) formerly comprised the Turtles, who had a smash hit with “Happy Together.” They joined Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, as featured vocalists in 1970, and stayed in the Mothers until 1972—just long enough to have featured roles in 200 Motels.
  • Ringo Starr’s chauffeur played the band’s bass player: according to one anecdote, he was cast after the two bass players quit the band and a frustrated Zappa vowed to hire the next person who walked through the door.
  • 200 Motels was one of the earliest films shot on video and transferred to film. Shooting on video allowed Tony Palmer to create visual effects that would have been too expensive to shoot on film.
  • In his review of the soundtrack album, Palmer called 200 Motelsone of the worst films in the entire history of cinema, a criticism which I can confidently assert because I was in part responsible for its direction.
  • In 1988 Zappa made a documentary about the film called “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. That rarity is long out of print on VHS and has never had an authorized DVD or Blu-ray release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tony Palmer overlaid trippy experimental video effects—the visual correlative of Frank Zappa’s oddball music—over almost every minute of the running time, making this a particularly difficult movie to choose a single image for. These tricks accumulate to build up a hazy impression of whirling psychedelia. Since we have to pick one image, however, we’ll go with our first view of Centerville, the small town enveloped in a wavering pattern of lysergic zebra stripes, which represents the hazy, melted-together vision of every two-bit town the band soldiers through.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hot Nun; towel smoking; penis oratorio

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If anything sets 200 Motels apart from the other psychedelic cinematic noodlings of the hippie era, it’s Frank Zappa’s extraordinarily weird music—a unique mix of jazz-inflected blues/rock, avant-garde 12-tone classical music, and junior high school sex jokes. Mix concert footage (both of the Mothers of Invention and the orchestra Zappa retained for the shoot) with experimental videos, underground cartoons, oddball rock star cameos, and no plot whatsoever and you have a movie worthy of the production company’s name: “Bizarre Productions.” Zappa is a latter-day saint of pop-surrealism, and although he’ll always be best known for his music, this is the canonical record of his twisted sensibility on film.


Original trailer for 200 Motels

COMMENTS: The original tagline did not read “Ringo Starr IS Larry Continue reading 266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

CAPSULE: OUT 1: NOLI ME TANGERE (1971)/OUT 1: SPECTRE (1972)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Rivette

FEATURING: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Juliet Berto, Michele Moretti, , Bernadette Lafont, Bulle Ogier, Francoise Fabien, Hermoine Karagheuz, Eric Rohmer

PLOT: Two theatrical troupes: one amateur and one professional, with different artistic approaches, rehearse plays by Aeschylus. Two loners: one male and one female, both scam artists, operate independently of each other. All these players are seemingly connected via a loose conspiracy of “13,” inspired by the work of Honoré de Balzac and .

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The improvisational framework is experimental, but it’s more conventional in its overall form. Rivette’s follow-up feature, Celine and Julie Go Boating, which is indebted to Out 1 in its production and concept, is closer to “weird.”

COMMENTS: Out 1 was long hyped as “the Holy Grail of modern French cinema,” and that was not mere hyperbole. After French television turned the project down, a four-and-a-half-hour cut, Spectre, was edited to screen in theaters (with an intermission). The original version thirteen-hour version, Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me) was screened only once in workprint form in the early 70’s. A re-edited version followed in the late 80’s, and a “finished” version turned up on German and French television in the early 90’s.

At first, watching the complete, restored Out 1 may seem a daunting enterprise, but in a world of binge viewing, it seems very contemporary, while simultaneously presenting a time capsule of France in the early 70’s. Out 1 explores the role of art (specifically theater) in society, interpersonal relationships, and secret societies/conspiracies, all in a way that is very entertaining—much more than the words “experimental feature” would suggest.

Looking at it 45 years later, one thing that helps give Out 1 some perspective are the events of May ’68, which is the hub from which the story revolves around. After a brief period of revolution and the hope of all things possible, we pick up two years later; and while the revolutionary spirit is still alive in the efforts of the troupes, everyone involved is disillusioned with their current reality to some degree. The passing of a note to Colin (Leaud) by an unknown woman—seen as one of the actors in one of the troupes—stirs him to investigate the concept of the “13,” and its effect ripples out among the characters. Is there indeed a conspiracy? Or is the conspiracy merely an abstract concept of a fleeting ideal that may never be obtained, but should always be pursued?

The Noli Me Tangere version, presented over eight episodes, anticipates such shows as “Lost” with its canvas of characters and a central mystery at the core. However, while that mystery provides dramatic momentum, it is not the primary focus; in fact, it isn’t until Episode 5 that it begins to coalesce. A substantial portion of each episode focused on the exercises and rehearsals of both troupes, and their succeeding analyses. It’s a detailed look at theatrical process, and while some may find these sections maddening, they’re an important part of the whole: “acting”  and “performance” are the main subjects, after all. The characters’ interactions with each other at many points are performances, especially the outsiders Colin and Frederique (Berto), whose scams are another form of improvisation. And the entire enterprise is a performance by everyone involved. The Spectre version keeps this basic frame intact, yet at four hours, much is condensed. Scenes are rearranged, some tangents are dropped, and the “Conspiracy of 13” aspect is center stage.

BLU-RAY/DVD INFO: In 2016, Carlotta released a region free box set in North America of both versions of Out 1 on Blu-ray and DVD, featuring a 2K restoration. Also included in the set is a documentary, The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s OUT 1 Revisited, which is extremely informative, and a 120 page booklet with essays and notes. For those in the UK or with region free players, Arrow UK issued the box set “The Jacques Rivette Collection” which includes Out 1, and the additional Rivette features Duelle, Noroit and Merry-Go-Round.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

Order of the Exile – Jacques Rivette website

Introduction to Rivette – Jonathan Rosenblum essay on Rivetter

Out 1 And Its Double – Jonathan Rosenblum’s essay from the box set release

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Uniquely ambitious, Rivette’s film (technically a serial) spends nearly 13 hours stitching paranoia, loneliness, comedy, and mystical symbolism into a crazy quilt big enough to cover a generation.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

263. ROMA (1972)

AKA Fellini’s Roma

“Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.”–Anatole Broyard

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Gonzales Falcon

PLOT: Roma is a series of vignettes, some relatively realistic and some fantastic, about the city of Rome. The closest thing to a plot are the scenes involving Fellini himself, who dreams about the city as a young man, comes there as a teen, and then is seen making a movie about the city as an adult. Other segments involve a bawdy street meal, a vaudeville show during World War II, modern hippies drifting through Rome, a pair of brothels, and the infamous ecclesiastical fashion show.

Still from Roma (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini came to Rome from Rimini as an 18-year old to go to law school, although he quickly abandoned that pretense to pursue an artistic career path. Although it seems clear that Fellini means for the young provincial boy who dreams of Rome and the young man who steps off the train and into a Roman pensione to be his stand-ins, the director never makes this explicit. United Artists asked for voiceover narration to make this identification clear in the version that played in the U.S.
  • The film was shortened by nine minutes (to a running time of two hours) for its international release, and some changes were made for different markets. Slightly different cuts have circulated for years, and there is no restored print of the original Italian version, although the extra footage survives in workprints. Among the deleted scenes was one where appeared as himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The star image here could not be something other than an offering from the ecclesiastical fashion show. Candidates include the bishops’ uniforms with blinking stained glass patterns and a shrouded skeletal “memento mori” carriage that carries up the end of the procession. We’ll select the grand finale, the appearance of a glowing, flying Pope cast as a pagan sun god, with electronic sunbeams streaming behind his beatifically beaming countenance.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Horse on the highway; fading frescoes; light-up miter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The speedy editing of the U.S. release trailer misleadingly emphasizes the decadent aspects of Fellini’s Roma, making it look like a trippy sequel to Satyricon for the college midnight movie crowd. In truth, while Roma is experimental and disorientingly non-linear, it’s greatly restrained compared to its psychedelic predecessor. Most of the sequences are only subtly strange, pitched in the almost realistic register of Fellini’s next film, Amarcord. Or at least, that’s the case up until the fashion show, when Fellini ignites the film with a surreal, blasphemous brand. This grand vaudeville sequence, which lasts over 15 minutes, catapults the film from a borderline curiosity from an innovative master to an acknowledged staple of the weird canon.


American release trailer for Roma

COMMENTS: Rome is the eternal city, once the seat of Europe’s Continue reading 263. ROMA (1972)

CAPSULE: FRANCOFONIA (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: An experimental documentary on the Louvre, with dramatic recreations of the Nazi takeover and Napoleon showing up to point out his own portraits.

Srill from Fancofonia (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This stream-of-consciousness companion piece to Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov‘s amazing one-shot exploration of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, is too messy with too many wild hairs. Ultimately, it seems to be more about Sokurov’s own artistic whims and impulses than it is about the Louvre.

COMMENTS: As the opening credits scroll, we hear director Sokurov take (scripted) phone calls regarding post-production work on his latest movie (presumably Francofonia itself). The second caller (“Captain Dirk,” who we’ll meet again later) asks about the director’s progress and he confesses “I don’t think the film is successful.”

I generally agree, although any movie that spotlights so many masterpieces from the Louvre can’t be a complete failure. Sokurov is a true connoisseur of European art (as seen in Russian Ark) and a has a legitimate love for the Louvre, but this documentary/narrative hybrid piece shows no real organization or purpose. It’s like an spur-of-the-moment whirlwind trip to a museum. Partly, Sokurov wants to give an account of how deputy museum director Jacques Joujard hid the museum’s treasures from the Nazis ahead of the occupation of Paris in 1940, with the silent blessing of  Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the cultured professor Hitler had appointed as “caretaker” of French cultural treasures. This potentially interesting story is told with both archival footage and recreations using actors. But Sokurov masks his straightforward tale with multiple digressions: his own poeticized musings on European culture; a mysterious character who runs around the darkened Louvre in a gown saying “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; the ghost of Napoleon (who shows up to point out his own portraits); Sokurov’s fanciful Skype discussions with the aforementioned Captain Dirk, who’s carrying a load of museum-bound historical treasures on a freighter imperiled by rough seas; and so on.

Francofonia suffers by comparison with Russian Ark, whose one-take, two-character gimmick imposed structure and discipline on the film while still allowing Sokurov to indulge his imagination. Sokurov is intelligent, and his a love for museums and for the preservation of European high culture comes across, but Francofonia is so scattershot that his passion is dissipated. A conventional documentary would hit at least as hard: indeed, moments when the camera merely pans over the straining figures of “The Raft of the Medusa” or past each curl in an Assyrian lamassu’s beard, or zooms in so we can see the intimate cracks in the “Mona Lisa”‘s aging canvas, are the film’s strongest sights.

Sokurov says he wants to create cinematic tributes to Madrid’s Prado and London’s British Museum next. I hope he finds a more interesting angle from which to film these projects than he did for his Louvre piece.

The Music Box Francofonia DVD or Blu-ray includes two substantial extras, each about an hour long: the making of documentary “Visitors to the Louvre” and “The Man Who Saved the Louvre,” a conventional documentary (which the DVD refers to as a “play”) on Jacques Joujard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sometimes the bizarre can illuminate the poignant, sometimes it distracts. In ‘Francofonia’ it most definitely distracts… terribly over-directed and seems strange just for the sake of being strange.”–Tom Long, Detroit Free Press (contemporaneous)