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 the small town parade of priests, drunken construction workers and majorettes.  There’s also “Dental Hyegine Dilemma,” a crude (in every sense of the word) cartoon that sees a drugged-up band member reject good spirit Donovan (a self-described “cosmic love pump matrix”) in favor of a devil who convinces him to break away from “comedy music” and start his own band; the imp also persuades him to steal ashtrays from the motel and to roll up and smoke a six week old unwashed bath mat.  Want more?  There’s experimental film splicing, a full orchestra playing Zappa’s dissonant compositions, topless groupies, a chorus of Klansmen, and a closing benediction that starts with the words, “Lord have mercy on the people in England for the terrible food these people must eat…”  Basically, 200 Motels is a freak-out revue that comes off like a particularly undisciplined 90 minute episode of Monty Python interspersed with obscene songs and cacophonous experimental compositions.  Zappa may not appear, but his bawdy, short-attention-span spirit is definitely the soul of the film.  200 Motels is the perfect definition of an uneven movie, but it’s worth checking out; if for nothing else, as a document of the anarchic psychedelic era and of Zappa’s deranged genius.  It’ll blow your mind, if not expand it.

200 Motels‘ trippy look, consisting largely of colored solarized images laid one on top of the other, was achieved by shooting on videotape and compositing several negatives together to make one roll of 35 mm film.  The visual gimmickry, courtesy of Tony Palmer (who went on to a long and successful career documenting rock and classical musical performances), is artistic and effective, although the effects look antiquated and quaint today.  At the time, no one had ever used this process before, and even the negative reviewers marveled at what they were seeing.

DVD NOTE: the Amazon link above is for a VHS version of the film.  A Region 0 DVD copy, released together with a booklet by Tony Palmer, does exist—I purchased one from Amazon over a year ago.  It’s since been removed from the site, however, suggesting that Palmer never properly obtained the rights to re-issue the film from the notoriously stingy and litigious Zappa estate.  There is currently no legitimately licensed DVD version of the film for sale and, so far as I am aware, no imminent plans to release one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Whatever else it may be, Frank Zappa’s ‘200 Motels’ is a joyous, fanatic, slightly weird experiment in the uses of the color videotape process. If there is more that can be done with videotape, I do not want to be there when they do it… overbearing is the word for this movie. It assaults the mind with everything on hand.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Bruce,” who called it “very funny and very weird” and advised us to “take a break from you ‘heavy’ films and watch this one.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: 200 MOTELS (1971)”

  1. Next reader’s poll this site does, this movie will be my top vote! I just absolutely adore Zappa, and this movie always makes me chuckle my guts out. Amazing soundtrack as well. I think Zappa deserves his mark in the big book of weirdness. The really weird thing that came through my head is how he makes such unbelievably druggy material, despite never even toking a single joint.

    CENTERSVILLE. A REAL NICE PLACE TO RAISE YOUR KIDS. CHURCHES. AND LIQUOR STORES.

    1. I wish I could take credit for coining “lysergic,” but it’s a word I’ve read several New York film critics use since the 1970s to describe “trippy” movies. I’m not sure who used the word first, but I believe it was probably The Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman. My only innovation was to use it as an adverb rather than an adjective.

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