Rockin’ in the Film World #17: Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS (United Artists 1971)

Frank Zappa is definitely an acquired taste, one I acquired as a young kid listening to albums like “Absolutely Free”, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”,  and “Apostrophe”, which goes a long way in helping to explain my warped world view. Zappa’s avant garde rock’n’roll, a mélange of jazz, classical, doo-wop, psychedelica, and anything else he could think of, combined with his nonsensical, sexual, and scatological lyrics, skewered convention, the plastic world of suburban America, and hippie culture as well (Zappa was an equal opportunity offender). 200 MOTELS was his first attempt at making a movie, co-directing and co-writing with British documentarian Tony Palmer, and to call it bizarre would be a gross understatement.

Visually, the film is as close to Zappa’s avant garde compositions as you can get. 200 MOTELS was shot on videotape and transferred to 35mm film, using techniques like double and triple exposure, color filters, flash-cut editing, and animation, and is more hallucinatory than Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (though Zappa himself was staunchly anti-drug use). It’s about life on the road, a common theme in rock films, in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with random segments, skits, and performances by Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing FZ’s score live on film.

The Mothers play themselves: Anysley Dunbar, George Duke, Ian Underwood, and ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, collectively known as Flo & Eddie (My Brush With Greatness Story: I once partied backstage with Flo & Eddie at a nightclub in Boston after one of their performances – until one of my drunk, belligerent friends kept calling the overweight Volman a “fat fuck”, getting us thrown out of the room. Later, I encountered Kaylan wandering the streets with a pretty young groupie, who laughed and said, “It’s a jungle out there, man”). Ringo Starr is on hand as Larry the Dwarf, impersonating Zappa, and The Who’s Keith Moon is “The Hot Nun”. Folk singer/actor Theodore Bikel appears as a TV host and as Rance Muhammitz, who may or may not be The Devil. Real life groupies Janet Ferguson and Lucy Offerall play groupies, and former GTO and Supergroupie Pamela Des Barres is a rock writer. Original Mother Jimmy Carl Black sings “Lonesome Cowboy Burt”, one of the more traditional scenes in this anything but traditional film:

Cal Schenkel, the graphic artist who did many of Zappa’s album covers, is credited as production designer, giving the film it’s outlandish look. 200 MOTELS won’t be for everybody; if you like Zappa’s music, you’ll like this film. Those with a taste for surrealism will want to watch this experiment in abstract expression, others will find it tedious and self-indulgent. As for me, I love Frank Zappa’s out-there stylings, and I recommend it to all you similar mutants in the tribe of Zappa.

More “Rockin’ in the Film World”:

ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS BEACH PARTY WILD IN THE STREETS JAILHOUSE ROCK IT’S A BIKINI WORLD A HARD DAY’S NIGHT BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH  – THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT – HAVING A WILD WEEKEND – HEAD – KID GALAHAD – SKI PARTY – THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – HOLD ON!

Prophet Without Honor: Timothy Carey’s THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER (Timothy Carey 1962)

Timothy Agoglia Carey (1929-1994) was an eccentric, oddball actor who played in everything from early Stanley Kubrick films (THE KILLING, PATHS OF GLORY) to AIP Beach Party romps (BIKINI BEACH, BEACH BLANKET BINGO ). He had the look of an overfed vampire, and was noted for his off-the-wall characterizations. Carey didn’t play the Hollywood game, considering himself an artist, and you’ve got to admire that. In 1962, he made a film called THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER, which he produced, directed, wrote, starred in, and released himself. Top THAT, Orson Welles!.

This ultra-low-budget film is totally bizarre right off the rip. Insurance man Clarence Hilliard (Carey) gets himself fired from his job after telling people they don’t need insurance. He wants more out of life, believing man is a superbeing, and begins to set himself up as a God. After watching a rock’n’roll teen idol, Clarence becomes a charismatic, guitar-toting, fiery evangelist, renaming himself ‘God’ Hilliard. Gaining a following, he makes a deal with The Devil and joins the political fray, campaigning for president!

‘God’ Hilliard mesmerizes the masses with his rhetoric, delivering a populist message “for the people” to become Gods themselves, blasting the crooked two-party system, and deriding the news media as “printing lies” (sound familiar?). ‘God’ Hilliard rails against everything, including The Almighty, questioning the existence of God. His final desecration of the Holy Eucharist (which will definitely offend some) gives way to a rather shocking finale.

THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER is shot in a cinema verite stylemuch like the later films of Carey’s good friend John Cassavetes. But Carey adds his own unique vision, “borrowing” from the foreign films of the day. It’s not a great movie, or a particularly good one far as film aesthetics go, but it held my interest straight through til the end. I can’t say that about some of the so-called “classics” I’ve seen (or even clunkers). Carey gave his all for his art here, and created an interesting, thought-provoking film with limited resources, the mark of a true artist.

Portrait of 2 Artists: Frank Zappa (l) and Timothy Carey

There’s some interesting bits of trivia, as well. The score is by Frank Zappa , five years before making the scene with The Mothers of Invention’s seminal psychedelic album FREAK-OUT. Zappa’s distinct musical touch was unmistakable, even back then. The narrator is Paul Frees , well-known voiceover artist who I’ve discussed before. And the cinematographer is credited to one Raymond Steckler, better known as Ray Dennis Steckler (or Cash Flagg, or Wolfgang Schmidt or Cindy Lou Sutters!), who went on to develop his own “artistic vision” with the cult classics THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME CRAZY MIXED-UP ZOMBIES and THE THRILL SEEKERS.

THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER will not be for everyone’s tastes. It’s below low-budget, sleazy, blasphemous, and like it’s creator completely off-center. Those of you who crave something bold and different will be as mesmerized by Carey’s ‘God’ Hilliard as I was. The oddball auteur later made another solo effort, 1970’s TWEET’S LADIES OF PASADENA. If it’s anywhere near THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER, it will be worth watching!