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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: CANDY (1968)

DIRECTED BY:  Christian Marquand

FEATURING: Ewa Aulin, John Astin, , , , , , Walter Matthau, Charles Aznavour

PLOT: A nubile girl separated from her father wanders the U.S. meeting a poet, gardener, general, doctor, guru, and more, learning that men only want one thing from her.

Still from Candy (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ah, the late 1960s all-star wacky counter-culture cash-in flop. I have a personal affection for this suspect subgenre, which includes Casino Royale and Myra Breckinridge among other campy disasters. The whole mini-movement was inspired equally by “Laugh-In,” screenwriters with LSD connections, and Hollywood execs’ hopes of wringing the spare cash that hadn’t been blown on grass from out of hippies’ pockets. Sadly, as the number of available remaining slots on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies grows ever smaller, we have to be ever more selective, and Candy has neither the balls-to-the-walls weirdness nor the cinematic competence to challenge for a spot among the very strangest films. Having the even more stunning and misconceived Skidoo on the List to represent this shaky subgenre takes some of the sting out of reluctantly passing on this wild and wooly folly, though.

COMMENTS: Buck Henry, fresh off an Oscar for The Graduate, wrote Candy‘s script. Douglas Trumbull (the man responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s “cosmic gate” scenes) did the opening and closing effects. The Byrds, Steppenwolf and Dave Grusin appear on the impressive soundtrack. With that lineup of talent, along with a cast sporting multiple Oscar winners, it’s a shock how awful Candy can be at times. The blame can go to none other than director Christian Marquand (a successful French actor), whose second and final turn at the helm of a major motion picture was this financial shipwreck. Fortunately, at its best (er, worst), Candy is laughably awful, with enough “WTF?” moments (both intentional and unintentional) to keep your eyes glues to the tube.

The plot is a series of nearly-satirical vignettes in which a cross-section of American manhood attempts to grope, seduce, and violate the naïve Candy, who only wants to find her missing father. It is, as the kids today say, kind of rapey; but the menaces the nubile Ewa Auin faces are so silly and absurd that it’s hard to take offense. Candy appears confused rather than frightened by the men’s advances, and whenever someone does score, she enjoys it, in the free love spirit of the times. Her molesters are, in turn, a drunken poet (Burton, as a teen idol version of Dylan Thomas); a Mexican gardener (Ringo Starr, who makes look like a Guadalajara native by comparison); an air force commander (Walter Matthau); her father’s twin brother; two medical professionals (Coburn and Huston); an underground filmmaker; a hunchback (Azvanour); a self-appointed guru traveling the country in a big rig (Brando); and a mysterious cloaked figure. Among the male cast, opinions are divided on who comes off best and worst, but even if their performances are halfway decent (Coburn), the actor’s star is tarnished just by appearing in this mess.

If you’re looking for weird bits beyond the spectacle of big names embarrassing themselves, we only need to point to the opening and closing, which imply that Candy is some sort of star child sex messiah. Then there’s the scene in a glass-bottomed limousine, shot from below; a drunken Burton making love to a mannequin; a wall-scaling hunchback; and every moment of Brando’s politically incorrect brownface performance as an Indian guru who teaches Candy both levitation and the advanced spine-warping version of the Kama Sutra. Individually, some of the sequences work, but the movie never gets a comic rhythm going, and even the horrible acting rarely elicits a chuckle. It does, however, get weirder as it goes on, coming to resemble a softcore “Alice in Wonderland” more than its original inspiration, Voltaire’s “Candide.” It’s one of those fabulous extravagances that could only have emerged out from behind of a cloud of smoke in the psychedelic era.

The eclectic cast and crew of the film adaptation fits Candy’s curious history. It started life in 1958 as a satirical pornographic novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, which was originally banned but became a succès de scandale when it was republished in the 1960s. “Candy” helped launch Southern’s career: he went on to write or contribute to screenplays for Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, Easy Rider, and the adaptation of his own novel The Magic Christian. (Reportedly Southern was not a fan of this adaptation). Candy was remade twice in 1978 (without authorization, with just enough changes to avoid lawsuits), as dueling hardcore sex films: The Erotic Adventures of Candy and Pretty Peaches. Pretty Peaches, at least, was quite accomplished for an adult film, with bubbleheaded Desiree Cousteau arguably outperforming debuting Ewa Aulin, and has probably been seen far more often than this official studio-backed adaptation. Long neglected, in 2016 Kino Lorber re-released Candy on DVD and Blu-ray, with interviews with Buck Henry and film critic Kim Morgan (‘s wife) among the extras.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a trippy, candy colored comedy with sci-fi and fantastic overtones, complete with a mindblowing cosmic finale. There really hasn’t been another movie quite like it, and for those who can handle cinematic head trips laced with chuckles and gorgeous visuals, this Candy is dandy indeed.”–Mondo Digital (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “kengo,” who rhapsodized “Cheesy sleazy patchy fun, with a bit of hit and miss satire and no discernible plot, but it does have McPhisto! – Richard Burton at his best. Hollywood was good in the sixties.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Wilfrid Brambell

PLOT: A day in the life of the Beatles as their handlers try to prepare for a show that night—but the lads are always goofing off, chasing girls, and trying to track down Paul’s grandfather.

Still from A Hard Day's Night (1964)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For all its cult cachet, all the talk about its irreverent anarchy and its “surreal humour,” and all of the “underground” techniques it mainstreamed (using techniques pioneered by the French New Wave, Day’s Night is also often credited with inventing the music video), the Beatles’ first feature isn’t “weird” (except as a corrective to the overly-stiff style of 1950s filmmaking it was reacting to).

COMMENTS: “They’re ‘fab’ and all the other pimply hyperboles,” goes one typically sparkling line in A Hard Day’s Night. The speaker, a cynical, unhip adman specializing in teen marketing, was talking about shirts, not the Beatles, but he might as well have been expressing the dismissive attitude most grown-ups shared for the Fab Four before Richard Lester’s rollicking A Hard Day’s Night recast the group as trickster archetypes rather than just four young men pandering to underage girls’ romantic fantasies. Lester makes the Liverpudlians universally lovable: the movie caters to the spirit of rebellion and style kids and teens connected with, while simultaneously disarming adults’ fears and contempt with a witty script. The jokes and wordplay (“I’m a mocker,” Ringo says when asked if he’s a mod or a rocker) were too sophisticated for the crowds of screaming, erotically ecstatic girls (mostly pre-teens, as the concert footage reveals—the Beatlemania demographic, it turns out, was the same age group that later embraced the Backstreet Boys or One Direction) who populate the film’s electrifying concert sequences. The script aimed at broadening the group’s audience by playing up the group’s reputation for clever wordplay and irreverent ad-libs, while not apologizing for their boy band magnetism. It worked. After A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles were no longer just kids’ stuff: they were spokesmen for a youth movement with a cool new insouciant attitude.

Although each of the band members has a distinct personality (wry John, boyish Paul, quiet George and mopey Ringo), “the Beatles” as a group emerge as the movie’s principal character. The boy’s adventures tweak the status quo without eviscerating it; the film’s satire is so gentle that its targets—joyless adults, out-of-touch media, and the humorless of every stripe—laughed at the jibes, not recognizing themselves. Yeah, its pro-youth, but it doesn’t alienate older folk, most of whom would rather identify with Paul’s mischievous (but clean) grandfather and his penchant for sneaking off to the casino than with the wrinkly sourpuss who refuses to open the windows on the train. The spirit embodied by Lester’s Beatles was welcoming, and it wasn’t about chronological age: it was about choosing “parading” over propriety. The plot, such as it is, is a constant stream of sequences where someone wanders off to do his own thing, leaving the authorities (the band’s manager, the television producer) wringing their hands. Paul’s grandfather is constantly getting into trouble; the boys leave practice to go frolic in a field; with only an hour left until the big show, Ringo goes off on his own, ending up in police custody. In the end, naturally, the lads pull it together and bring down the house, proving that the stuffed shirts needn’t have fretted—they should just enjoy the ride, like the rest of us.

Naturally, the Criterion Collection gives A Hard Day’s Night the royal treatment. Aside from the restored picture and (possibly more important) audio (including a new stereo mix), the 2-DVD (1 Blu-ray) set collects four short documentaries on the film, interviews, and more. The commentary track includes almost a dozen people who worked on the movie–including extras, editors, the cinematographer—but unfortunately, nothing from director Lester. Of major interest to cinephiles (and of some interest to weirdophiles) is Lester’s short “The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film,” with Spike Milligan and , a series of silent gags (such as a man who places a record on a tree stump and plays it by running around in a circle holding a needle) that was nominated for an Oscar and was a big favorite of John Lennon’s. Rounding out the package is an 80-page booklet with an appreciation by Howard Hampton, an interview with Lester, and behind-the-scenes photos of the Beatles. The release is a must-have for movie fans and Beatlemaniacs alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… looks chaotic and slapdash enough (and just occasionally, for me, depressing enough) to count as an experimentalist or underground movie.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (2014 reissue)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A billionaire adopts a bum, then uses his fortune to pull outrageous pranks designed to show how far people will debase themselves for money.

Still from The Magic Christian (1969)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The spirit of 1969 lives on in this wild and wicked kitchen sink satire that owes a lot to easy access to fine Moroccan hashish. While it’s uneven and at times repetitive, when it’s at its best it’s got a reckless, swinging psychedelic sensibility that’s intoxicating.

COMMENTS: You may notice that there are five different writers listed in the credits of The Magic Christian, including director McGrath,  (who write the original novel), star Peter Sellers, and and  of (which was just kicking off its first year on television in 1969—both actors also play small roles in the film). This may help explain why the ramshackle satire on display here has a little bit of a “too-many-cooks”/revue show feel. The story arc is flat; it’s a series of pranks/sketches that don’t build on each other. They could be reshuffled in almost any order. In the first segment, billionaire Guy Grand (Sellers) adopts a hobo hippie (Starr), but Starr has no real character; he’s only there to lend an ear so that Sellers doesn’t have to explain his bizarre behavior via monologues. The sketches are sometimes satirical, but just as often, they’re plain goofy, as when Grand takes a tank brigade with him on a pheasant hunt. It’s not clear whether we should admire Grand for exposing the hypocrisy of money-grubbing society, or revile him for exploiting people’s weaknesses for his own amusement. “Some days it’s not enough merely to teach,” he muses, “you must punish as well.” That sounds fine when he’s trolling the upper-crust, using a suitcase full of money to fix the Oxford/Cambridge rowing race, but when he abuses a hotdog vendor or bribes a lowly beat cop to eat a parking ticket, he’s acting like a bully. And when he destroys a Rembrandt, he’s a straight-up sadistic Philistine. The first hour is uneven, but things get manic in the last half hour, when Grand pitches a cruise aboard the “Magic Christian” as the event of the season for the stiff-upper-lip crowd. Once aboard, the dandies find the trip a bourgeois nightmare populated by male exotic dancers, pot-puffing ship physicians, transvestites, a galley full of slave girls, a guy running around in a monkey suit, and a vampire. The Badfinger soundtrack, featuring the Beatlesesque hit “Come and Get It” (composed by Paul McCartney), is a major asset, and cameos by Raquel Welch, , and Yul Brynner (among others) liven things up considerably. Christian arrives as a little bit of a disappointment, partially because this prodigious an assembly of talent—seriously, Terry Southern, Peter Sellers, and a third of Monty Python working together on one project?—promises more comedy goodness than any single movie could possibly deliver. But it’s still a time capsule of psychedelic gags from an age in which satirists viewed restraint and good taste as the enemy, but without making stupidity and vulgarity their allies.

Much of the cast and crew of The Magic Christian overlaps with that of 1967’s Casino Royale: director McGraff, writer Southern, and star Sellers all worked together on the shambolic 60s spy spoof. In a further similarity, where Frankenstein’s monster made an appearance in Royale, Dracula shows up in Christian.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This gaudy bauble from the paisley era just drips with low-gloss British Mod Pop style and a would-be Richard Lester vibe, but with no clue about how to put its abundant British talent, chiefly Peter Sellers, to any worthy purpose beyond playing at adolescent cynicism.”–Mark Bourne, DVD Journal (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kengo, who suggested it’s “not really that weird a movie by late sixties/early seventies standards, with all the disjointed dreamlike narrative, broad satire and surreal imagery that seemed to be standard at the time, but has some good bits.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

134. LISZTOMANIA (1975)

“A veritable insanity, one unheard of in the annals of furore!”-Heinrich Heine on “Lisztomania” (1844)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Nicholas, Veronica Quilligan, Sara Kestelman, ,

PLOT: Composer/pianist Franz Liszt hosts concerts before screaming throngs of 19th century women, and enjoys as many groupies and mistresses as he can fit in on the side. Young composer Richard Wagner gives Liszt a piece to perform, thinking it will make his career, but is outraged when the star transforms the composition into his hit “Chopsticks” on stage. Wagner takes it upon himself to wreck Liszt’s life and career, eventually seducing the older musician’s illegitimate daughter into joining his fascist cult while simultaneously building an Aryan monster with which he hopes to conquer the world.

Still from Lisztomania (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • There really was a phenomenon known as Lisztomania (the term was coined by the poet Heinrich Heine). Hungarian Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was a virtuoso concert pianist as well as a composer, and as a young man his concerts would induce fits of hysteria in (especially female) concertgoers; fans would fight over the performer’s discarded gloves or broken piano strings. This condition of ecstatic fandom, now familiar to anyone who has ever attended an arena rock concert, was unheard of at the time, and authorities were seriously concerned about it, considering it a psychological disorder.
  • Portions of the movie were adapted from the book “Nélida” by Countess Marie d’Agoult (played in the film by Fiona Lewis). The novel was a thinly-disguised description of her love affair with Liszt (with whom she had three illegitimate children).
  • Lisztomania was made by Russell back-to-back and released in the same year as the hit rock opera Tommy, which also starred Daltrey.
  • Lisztomania was the first movie recorded in Dolby sound.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The musical number at the Russian palace where Liszt pulls out his giant inflatable, um, instrument, and the scantily clad female dancers treat it as an, um, maypole.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At times, it’s the biography of Franz Liszt if it were directed by Benny Hill working from a script by . With Nazi golems, Richard Wagner as a vampire, a climax aboard a heavenly spaceship, and a giant phallic musical number, this phantasmagorical biopic is Ken Russell at his ebullient silliest.

Clip from Lisztomania

COMMENTS: In his melodramatically excessive movies like The Devils or Altered States, it’s sometimes hard to tell when Ken Russell is being Continue reading 134. LISZTOMANIA (1975)

LIST CANDIDATE: 200 MOTELS (1971)

200 Motels has been officially added to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies. Comments are closed on this post; please comment on the official Certified Weird entry.

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tony Palmer & Frank Zappa

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

PLOT: 200 Motels is a series of sketches, experiments and concert footage loosely organized as a reflection on the mixture of insanity and tedium experienced by a rock and roll band on tour.

Still from 200 Motels (1971)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  The movie’s wild visuals, absurd jokes and attention deficit disorder pacing are enough to bring it to our attention.  But 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.

COMMENTS:  Ringo Starr plays Larry the Large Dwarf, portraying Frank Zappa.  The Who drummer Keith Moon is a female groupie dressed like Sally Field in “The Flying Nun.”   Theodore Bickel plays an omniscient Master of Ceremonies who brings Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, a cheeseburger, and demands they sign for the delivery—in blood.  Bickel’s character (or at least one of them) also explains the movie’s philosophy to the band: “You must remember that within the conceptual framework of this filmic event, nothing really matters.  It is entirely possible for several subjective realities to coexist.”  Zappa himself is barely in the movie and never speaks (or sings).  He’s only briefly glimpsed in concert footage—although the other band members reference him as a godlike figure who spies on them through an empty beer bottle.  Other than appeasing the great god Frank, the Mothers only care about three things—scoring dope, getting paid, and getting laid.  The characters in this “surrealistic documentary” drift in and out of various skits, animations, and drug trips, and also find time to perform numbers like “Mystery Roach,” “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and an oratorio in praise of the penis.  One highlight sees lead singers Kaylan and Volman taking a “trip” to everytown “Centerville,” which is full of churches and liquor stores and bathed in wavy zebra stripes that lysergically distort Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: 200 MOTELS (1971)