Tag Archives: Theodore Bikel

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: , , , , , 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)

I BURY THE LIVING (1958)

 exemplifies the star of yesteryear. He was not a twenty-something, pretty Twilight boy chiseled out of wax. He was craggy and already middle-aged when cast as Paladin in “Have Gun Will Travel,” television’s greatest westerns series. Boone was a perfect anti-hero and a memorable, complex villain in countless films, including ‘s The Tall T (1957). Despite his rough exterior, Boone was an erudite actor, and his proudest accomplishment may have been the tragically short-lived “Richard Boone Show” (1963) which brought repertory theater to small screen American audiences (even if, predictably, the fare was too original for that audience). Boone’s way to starring roles from character parts was a slow one, and his early body of work included low budget genre films, such as the quirky, flawed gem, I Bury The Living (1958).

Boone, one year into the iconic “Have Gun Will Travel,” is as understated in I Bury the Living as the movie’s title is trashy. The film was directed by prolific Z-movie director Albert Band (father of Full Moon Productions’ Charles Band), who gives it a brooding, British noir milieu, employing psychedelic montages (shot by cinematographer Frederick Gatelyand) and expressionist sets (from Edward Vorkapich). It plays like an extended “Twilight Zone” episode with one noticeable difference: an ending which almost kills it.

Still from I Bury the Living (1958)Bob Kraft (Boone) inherits the family graveyard. Former groundskeeper Andy McKee (, who gives a good performance despite an awful Scottish accent) is retiring after 40 years. McKee shows Kraft a large map of the cemetery. The map is basically a pin board: white pins indicate an empty plot, and black ones an occupied plot. When Kraft accidentally places a black pin in the plot assigned to a living person, that person dies. And so it goes. Kraft goes mad after multiple deaths, believing he has the power of life and death via those pins.

What is most remarkable about the film is its low budget style (shot almost entirely in a L.A. cemetery), including what may be the creepiest map in celluloid history. The map transforms several times, growing menacingly. It is like Doran Grey’s canvas as if painted by Franz Kline. In one effective vignette, the map looks like a giant mirror adorned in black pins. Kraft’s mental state and Gerald Fried’s thrashing score parallel the mirror.

A film like this should have gone out in a blaze of glory. Instead, a cop-out finale unconvincingly reveals a disgruntled employee and we don’t buy it one bit. The final montage pulls out all the “Twilight Zone” stops in a imitative way. Despite the flaws, I Bury the Living  is deserving of its sleeper status. Unfortunately , the producers did little to promote it, and the film became buried until it became a mild cult favorite, fell into the public domain, and was lauded by that Fort Knox of obscure genre gold: Sinister Cinema.

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)