What Happens to the Clothes We Throw Away?: Watch Unravel, a Short Documentary on the Journey Our Waste Takes

When we throw our clothes away in the West, they don’t all go to a thrift store or to a recy­cling cen­ter or a local land­fill. Instead, every year 100,000 tons of clothes make their way across the ocean to India. In this aware­ness rais­ing short doc from UK-based film­mak­er Megh­na Gup­ta, we see the end point of these bales and bales of West­ern fash­ion, and the women and men who turn our waste back into thread. The thread then begins its own jour­ney, inevitably wind­ing back up as cheap import­ed clothes. And the cycle begins again.

Gup­ta lets the women speak for them­selves, in par­tic­u­lar Resh­ma, a young moth­er and wife who works in one such recy­cling cen­ter in Pani­pat, North India. We see her dai­ly life as well as the process turn­ing our castoffs into thread. Upon enter­ing the coun­try, the clothes are cut so they can’t be re-sold. Then women like Resh­ma remove but­tons, zip­pers, and any oth­er non-cloth com­po­nent.

Far, far away from even a pass­ing encounter with a West­ern­er (apart from what they’ve seen on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel), Resh­ma and her co-work­ers cre­ate a nar­ra­tive and an image of the peo­ple send­ing all these clothes. The West must have a water short­age, Resh­ma says, that is stop­ping peo­ple from wash­ing their clothes. The West also must have a very strange diet to pro­duce the plus-size gar­ments they keep com­ing across.

Now, the West doesn’t have a water short­age, but accord­ing to EDGE (Emerg­ing Design­ers Get Exposed), the cloth­ing and tex­tile indus­try is the sec­ond largest pol­luter in the world, sec­ond only to oil, pro­duc­ing 20 per­cent of glob­al waste water, and a glob­al waste total of near­ly 13 mil­lion tons of fab­ric. Pro­duc­ing cot­ton is water-intensive—with 5,000 gal­lons need­ed just to make a pair of jeans and a t‑shirt.

Recy­cling is important—it’s been a con­stant mes­sage to the pub­lic since the 1970s. But the glob­al foot­print that this film hints at, all those car­go ships, all those trucks, all that fuel and those miles traveled…is this real­ly a solu­tion? How do we stop the demand and the dis­pos­abil­i­ty?

The doc doesn’t answer those ques­tions, and doesn’t mean to do so. It just wants you to see a small fam­i­ly in the mid­dle of a large glob­al machine. They seem hap­py enough. But they also see their fate as God-giv­en, at least in this life this time ’round.

“You tend to get dressed for oth­er peo­ple,” Reshma’s hus­band says. “But at the end of the day you’ll be as beau­ti­ful as God made you. All peo­ple have a nat­ur­al beau­ty.”

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

M.I.T. Com­put­er Pro­gram Alarm­ing­ly Pre­dicts in 1973 That Civ­i­liza­tion Will End by 2040

Watch Oscar-Nom­i­nat­ed Doc­u­men­tary Uni­verse, the Film that Inspired the Visu­al Effects of Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001 and Gave the HAL 9000 Com­put­er Its Voice (1960)

Google Cre­ates a Dig­i­tal Archive of World Fash­ion: Fea­tures 30,000 Images, Cov­er­ing 3,000 Years of Fash­ion His­to­ry

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Bowie’s Bookshelf: A New Essay Collection on The 100 Books That Changed David Bowie’s Life

Like some rock stars of his gen­er­a­tion, David Bowie had a lit­er­ary cast of mind; unlike most of those col­leagues, he also made his asso­ci­a­tion with books explic­it. (Not for noth­ing did he appear on that READ poster.) When­ev­er this sub­ject aris­es, it’s tempt­ing to bring up the sto­ry of how The Man Who Fell to Earth direc­tor Nico­las Roeg poked fun at the extreme num­ber of books with which Bowie sur­round­ed him­self dur­ing the time he was act­ing in that film, as we did when we post­ed about the David Bowie book club. Launched by Bowie’s son, the film­mak­er Dun­can Jones, that project was meant to read through Bowie’s own list of top 100 books, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. Now, thanks to the work of music jour­nal­ist John O’Con­nell, Bowie’s love of books has a book of its own.

Pub­lished in the UK as Bowie’s Books and in the US as Bowie’s Book­shelf, O’Con­nel­l’s essay col­lec­tion takes the 100 books the man who was Zig­gy Star­dust, Aladdin Sane, and The Thin White Duke named as favorites. In each he finds the rel­e­vant ques­tions (or at least fas­ci­nat­ing ones) to ask about each book’s rela­tion­ship to Bowie’s life and work: “How did the pow­er imbued in a sin­gle suit of armor in The Ili­ad impact a man who loved cos­tumes, shift­ing iden­ti­ty, and the siren song of the alter-ego?” Or, “How did the poems of T.S. Eliot and Frank O’Hara, the fic­tion of Vladimir Nabokov and Antho­ny Burgess, the comics of The Beano and The Viz, and the ground­break­ing pol­i­tics of James Bald­win influ­ence Bowie’s lyrics, his sound, his artis­tic out­look?”

Kirkus Reviews notes that “many of Bowie’s selec­tions speak to his obvi­ous pas­sion for music, espe­cial­ly ear­ly rock ’n’ roll and R&B (Greil Mar­cus, Ger­ri Her­shey), his famous Japanophil­ia (Yukio Mishi­ma, Tadanori Yokoo), and his stint in Ger­many (Alfred Döblin, Otto Friedrich).” O’Con­nel­l’s com­pletist analy­sis of Bowie’s top-100-books list, com­posed for an exhi­bi­tion at the Vic­to­ria & Albert Muse­um just six years ago, also reveals “the range and play­ful­ness in Bowie’s read­ing, from hefty tomes on the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion to lad­dish com­ic books like The Beano.” Oth­er essays cov­er Loli­taThe Gnos­tic GospelsA Con­fed­er­a­cy of Dunces, and White Noise, all part of a mix­ture that would tan­ta­lize any cul­tur­al crit­ic — much like the work of David Bowie, who still con­sti­tutes a cul­ture unto him­self.

Bowie’s Book­shelf: The Hun­dred Books that Changed David Bowie’s Life can be ordered now.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie’s Top 100 Books

The David Bowie Book Club Gets Launched by His Son: Read One of Bowie’s 100 Favorite Books Every Month

David Bowie Urges Kids to READ in a 1987 Poster Spon­sored by the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion

David Bowie Songs Reimag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers: Space Odd­i­ty, Heroes, Life on Mars & More

The Sto­ry of How David Jones Became David Bowie Gets Told in a New Graph­ic Nov­el

Bri­an Eno Lists 20 Books for Rebuild­ing Civ­i­liza­tion & 59 Books For Build­ing Your Intel­lec­tu­al World

David Bowie Picks His 12 Favorite David Bowie Songs: Lis­ten to Them Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

An Animated Introduction to Medieval Taverns: Learn the History of These Rough-and-Tumble Ancestors of the Modern Pub

When I think of the medieval tav­ern, I see grim footage from Bergman’s The Sev­enth Seal and grimy drink­ing scenes from Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. While only the first of these uses an osten­si­bly his­tor­i­cal set­ting, the imagery of them all is what we think of when we think of tav­erns. Huge casks in the cor­ners, great, inde­struc­tible wood­en tables and wood­en mugs, signs with pic­tures instead of words; drunk­en singing and the occa­sion­al axe fight.

The crude­ly ani­mat­ed Sim­ple His­to­ry video above con­firms these impres­sions, describ­ing the tav­erns, inns, and ale hous­es that were ances­tors of the mod­ern pub as “places of drink­ing, gam­bling, vio­lence, and crim­i­nal activ­i­ty.” Art his­to­ry and schol­ar­ship fur­ther con­firm our impres­sion of tav­erns as rough-hewn, row­dy hous­es where brawls fre­quent­ly broke out and all sorts of shady busi­ness trans­act­ed.

Ale hous­es had an “ale stake or ale pole” that could be raised to show they had a brew ready to serve. Tav­erns had a pole with leaves, called a “bush,” for the same pur­pose. Wine might be pricey, but beer was cheap, as “tax­ing it would not have been well-received.” Bar­maids poured drinks from pitch­ers of leather into mugs of wood. Food was… well, not so good…. Maybe we can visu­al­ize tav­ern life by extrap­o­lat­ing back­wards from our local dive bars.

How­ev­er, we might find it hard to imag­ine liv­ing in a time before beer. Milan Pajic, junior research fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge, found that beer made a rel­a­tive­ly late entry in the his­to­ry of Eng­lish drink, arriv­ing only in the lat­ter half of the 14th cen­tu­ry when intro­duced by Dutch immi­grants and demand­ed by sol­diers return­ing from the 100 Years War.

Between around 1350 and around 1400, Pajic claims, all of the beer drunk in Eng­lish tav­erns was import­ed from the Nether­lands. “The first evi­dence of some­one brew­ing beer” in Eng­land, Pajic writes in an arti­cle pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Medieval His­to­ry, “comes from 1398–9.” The brew­er, a “Duche­man,” was “fined for buy­ing ‘wheat in the mar­ket in order to pro­duce beer, to the great dam­age of the same mar­ket.”

Such per­se­cu­tion could not last. In a hun­dred year’s time, a few hun­dred brew­ers could be found around the coun­try, most of them immi­grants from the Low Coun­tries. But in part because the Eng­lish dis­trust­ed the Dutch, “it took almost a cen­tu­ry from the moment it was intro­duced as an import­ed com­mod­i­ty and con­sumed large­ly by immi­grants before it came to be pro­duced on Eng­lish soil and accept­ed by the natives.”

Tav­ern, inn, and ale house designs would have con­formed to local join­ery trends, but the medieval Eng­lish tavern’s chief draw—cheap, fresh­ly-brewed beer, and lots of it—was a sus­pi­cious con­ti­nen­tal import before it became a nation­al trea­sure.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Beer Archae­ol­o­gy: Yes, It’s a Thing

The First Known Pho­to­graph of Peo­ple Shar­ing a Beer (1843)

Dis­cov­er the Old­est Beer Recipe in His­to­ry From Ancient Sume­ria, 1800 B.C.

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The Entire Archive of Contact: A Journal for Contemporary Music Has Been Digitized and Put Online

FYI on a new dig­i­ti­za­tion project:

“Con­tact: A Jour­nal for Con­tem­po­rary Music was active from 1971–1990 and inde­pen­dent­ly pub­lished by its edi­tors. As with many inde­pen­dent print pub­li­ca­tions of that era, this has meant that, for read­ers and researchers oper­at­ing in a con­tem­po­rary dig­i­tal land­scape, the rich­ness of its resource has been all but inac­ces­si­ble. In recog­ni­tion of this sit­u­a­tion, in the years 2016–2019, the entire jour­nal was digi­tised and made avail­able over the course of a three-year research project..”

Con­tact’s basic inten­tions – as set out ful­ly in the first issue, dat­ed Spring 1971 – were to pro­mote informed dis­cus­sion of 20th-cen­tu­ry music in gen­er­al and the music of our own time in par­tic­u­lar. Among the orig­i­nal con­cerns of the founders of the mag­a­zine were that pop­u­lar musics, jazz and con­tem­po­rary folk music should play a part in our scheme. In the ear­li­er days, espe­cial­ly, we con­tin­u­al­ly sought for good writ­ing in these fields, as well as con­tri­bu­tions on ‘seri­ous’ music.”

Enter the Con­tact online archive here

via @ide­o­forms

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!


Watch the Opening of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with the Original, Unused Score

How does a movie become a “clas­sic”? Expla­na­tions, nev­er less than utter­ly sub­jec­tive, will vary from cinephile to cinephile, but I would sub­mit that clas­sic-film sta­tus, as tra­di­tion­al­ly under­stood, requires that all ele­ments of the pro­duc­tion work in at least near-per­fect har­mo­ny: the cin­e­matog­ra­phy, the cast­ing, the edit­ing, the design, the set­ting, the score. Out­side first-year film stud­ies sem­i­nars and delib­er­ate­ly con­trar­i­an cul­ture columns, the label of clas­sic, once attained, goes prac­ti­cal­ly undis­put­ed. Even those who active­ly dis­like Stan­ley Kubrick­’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance, would sure­ly agree that its every last audio­vi­su­al nuance serves its dis­tinc­tive, bold vision — espe­cial­ly that open­ing use of “Thus Spake Zarathus­tra.”

But Kubrick did­n’t always intend to use that piece, nor the oth­er orches­tral works we’ve come to close­ly asso­ciate with mankind’s ven­tures into realms beyond Earth and strug­gles with intel­li­gence of its own inven­tion. Accord­ing to Jason Kot­tke, Kubrick had com­mis­sioned an orig­i­nal score from A Street­car Named Desire, Spar­ta­cus, Cleopa­tra, and Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf com­pos­er Alex North.

At the top of the post, you can see 2001’s open­ing with North’s music, and below you can hear 38 min­utes of his score on Spo­ti­fy. As to the ques­tion of why Kubrick stuck instead with the tem­po­rary score of Strauss, Ligeti, and Khatch­a­turi­an he’d used in edit­ing, Kot­tke quotes from Michel Cimen­t’s inter­view with the film­mak­er:

How­ev­er good our best film com­posers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a mul­ti­tude of great orches­tral music avail­able from the past and from our own time? [ … ]  Although [North] and I went over the pic­ture very care­ful­ly, and he lis­tened to these tem­po­rary tracks and agreed that they worked fine and would serve as a guide to the musi­cal objec­tives of each sequence he, nev­er­the­less, wrote and record­ed a score which could not have been more alien to the music we had lis­tened to, and much more seri­ous than that, a score which, in my opin­ion, was com­plete­ly inad­e­quate for the film.

North did­n’t find out about Kubrick­’s choice until 2001’s New York City pre­miere. Not an envi­able sit­u­a­tion, cer­tain­ly, but not the worst thing that ever hap­pened to a col­lab­o­ra­tor who failed to rise to the direc­tor’s expec­ta­tions.

For more Kubrick and clas­si­cal music, see our recent post: The Clas­si­cal Music in Stan­ley Kubrick’s Films: Lis­ten to a Free, 4 Hour Playlist

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Decem­ber 2014.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Watch a New­ly-Cre­at­ed “Epi­logue” For Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

1966 Film Explores the Mak­ing of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Our High-Tech Future)

James Cameron Revis­its the Mak­ing of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Rare 1960s Audio: Stan­ley Kubrick’s Big Inter­view with The New York­er

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

What Guitars Were Like 400 Years Ago: An Introduction to the 9 String Baroque Guitar

Maybe it’s just me, but it some­times feels like gui­tar music is on the wane. Sure, there are plen­ty of gui­tar bands out there, gui­tar sales seem to hold steady, but the syn­the­siz­er, midi con­troller, and dig­i­tal audio work­sta­tion have become the dom­i­nant instru­ments of pop­u­lar music. Then again, it’s short-sight­ed to count the gui­tar out just yet, giv­en the 500-year longevi­ty of its design.

In the 17th cen­tu­ry, the Lute Soci­ety of Dart­mouth notes, the gui­tar was “cul­ti­vat­ed by play­ers and com­posers with­in the courts of princes and kings.” The Baroque gui­tar was very much like the mod­ern six string (or, as often these days, sev­en and eight string) that we know today, “aside from a dif­fer­ence of tun­ing,” writes luthi­er Clive Tit­muss. Where “the mod­ern gui­tar is a baritone/tenor… the baroque is an alto instru­ment, about the size of a vio­la.”

The dif­fer­ences in size and pitch change the sus­tain and artic­u­la­tion. The Baroque gui­tar’s tonal char­ac­ter­is­tics are much more del­i­cate, per­cus­sive, and lute-like. “The great­est music for baroque gui­tar is dif­fi­cult to ren­der ade­quate­ly on the mod­ern gui­tar because the tra­di­tions of the two instru­ments have diverged so wide­ly: They speak basi­cal­ly the same lan­guage, but with a dif­fer­ent vocab­u­lary and accent.” Ear­ly Renais­sance gui­tars had what is called a “four course” string arrange­ment, with eight dou­bled strings. The baroque gui­tar added one more for a “five course” instru­ment with nine strings.

Like its Renais­sance fore­bear, lutes, and mod­ern twelve-string gui­tars today, four of those “cours­es” were dou­bled, with pairs of strings tuned to the same note. This essen­tial­ly made it a five string gui­tar with the ring­ing sonor­i­ty of a man­dolin. In the video at the top, Bran­don Ack­er explains what this means in the­o­ry and prac­tice. The tun­ing was fair­ly close to a mod­ern six-string, but one octave up and miss­ing the low E. The lone high E string was called the chanterelle or “singing string.”

Pop­u­lar main­ly in south­ern Europe, the Baroque gui­tar “may well have been used as it fre­quent­ly is today,” the Lute Soci­ety points out: “to pro­vide a sim­ple strummed accom­pa­ni­ment for a singer or small group.” It was first held in con­tempt by ear­ly Span­ish com­posers who pre­ferred the sim­i­lar vihuela. But the gui­tar would dis­place that instru­ment, as well as the lute, in musi­cal com­po­si­tions across Spain, Italy, France and else­where in Europe.

In the videos above, you can see and hear some fine demon­stra­tions from Ack­er, who plays peri­od pieces like Suite in D Minor by Robert de Visée, court com­pos­er and musi­cian for Louis XIV and Louis XV. Below, see gui­tarist Ste­fano Maio­rana play a gor­geous Span­ish piece.

Giv­en the 400 years that sep­a­rate the mod­ern gui­tar from its Baroque ances­tor, the resem­blances are remark­able, prov­ing that the instrument’s 17th cen­tu­ry refin­ers hit on a design that per­fect­ly com­ple­ments the human voice, sounds great solo and in groups, and can han­dle both rhythm and lead. Even if most gui­tars in the future dou­ble as midi-con­trol­ling synth instru­ments, it’s prob­a­bly safe to say mod­ern music won’t give up this bril­liant, time-test­ed design any time soon.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of the Gui­tar: The Com­plete Three-Part Doc­u­men­tary

The His­to­ry of the Gui­tar & Gui­tar Leg­ends: From 1929 to 1979

The Ency­clo­pe­dia Of Alter­nate Gui­tar Tun­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Are Stand-Up Comedians Our Modern Day Philosophers? Pretty Much Pop #17 Considers

In an age where the aver­age per­son can’t name a liv­ing aca­d­e­m­ic philoso­pher, it’s been claimed that the social role of an indi­vid­ual orat­ing to the mass­es and get­ting them to think about fun­da­men­tal ques­tions is actu­al­ly not per­formed by aca­d­e­mics at all, and cer­tain­ly not by politi­cians and reli­gious fig­ures who need to keep on mes­sage in one way or oth­er, but by stand-up come­di­ans.

This is the premise of the Mod­ern Day Philoso­phers pod­cast, where come­di­an Daniel Lobell inter­views some of our best known and loved comics. How­ev­er, as Daniel has dis­cov­ered in the course of that show, only some come­di­ans are try­ing to express orig­i­nal views on the world. Many are just try­ing to tell good jokes. So do the rou­tines of those more idea-based come­di­ans count as phi­los­o­phy? Or does telling the whole truth (instead of a fun­ny one-side or exag­ger­at­ed take on truth) rule out being fun­ny? 

Daniel joins your hosts Mark Lin­sen­may­er (of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast), actor Eri­ca Spyres, and sci-fi author/linguist Bri­an Hirt to con­sid­er ques­tions of authen­tic­i­ty and offen­sive humor.  We look at how philoso­phers and comics can use some of the same com­mu­nica­tive tools like invent­ing new words, irony, and auto­bi­og­ra­phy. We touch on Dave Chap­pelle, Bill Burr, Han­nah Gads­by, George Car­lin, Emo Phillips, Rod­ney Dan­ger­field, Louis CK, Between Two Ferns, Berke­ley, Socrates, Kierkegaard, and more.

A few sources:

Find out about Dan­ny’s pod­casts, graph­ic nov­el, album, and videos at dannylobell.com.

This episode includes bonus dis­cus­sion (includ­ing some out-takes from the inter­view where we got too off-top­ic) that you can only hear by sup­port­ing the pod­cast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This pod­cast is part of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast net­work.

Pret­ty Much Pop is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.


Frank Zappa’s Surreal Movie 200 Motels: The First Feature Film Ever Shot on Videotape (1971)

As a famous first, Frank Zappa’s 1971 film 200 Motels set a stan­dard for hun­dreds of wacky exper­i­men­tal, B‑movies to come. The first full-length film shot entire­ly on video­tape, the cheap alter­na­tive to film that had thus far been used pri­mar­i­ly for TV shows and news broad­casts, the movie exploit­ed the medium’s every pos­si­bil­i­ty. “If there is more that can be done with video­tape,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review at the time, “I do not want to be there when they do it.”

The movie is not only a “joy­ous, fanat­ic, slight­ly weird exper­i­ment in the uses of the col­or video­tape process”; it is also a visu­al encap­su­la­tion of Zappa’s most com­i­cal­ly juve­nile, most musi­cal­ly vir­tu­osic sen­si­bil­i­ties, with Ringo Star play­ing “Zap­pa as ‘a very large dwarf,’” the Moth­ers of Inven­tion play­ing them­selves, Kei­th Moon appear­ing as a nun, the Roy­al Phil­har­mon­ic Orches­tra tak­ing abuse from Zap­pa, and a series of row­dy, raunchy mis­ad­ven­tures piled one atop the oth­er.

“It assaults the mind with every­thing on hand,” Ebert both mar­veled and half-com­plained. “Video­tape report­ed­ly allowed Zap­pa to film the entire movie in about a week, to do a lot of the edit­ing and mon­tage in the cam­era and to use cheap video­tape for his final edit­ing before trans­fer­ring the whole thing to a sur­pris­ing­ly high-qual­i­ty 35mm image.” As the mak­ing-of doc­u­men­tary below notes, the movie was edit­ed with­out “the use of com­put­er facil­i­ties,” and its lay­ers of effects helped invent new aes­thet­ic forms which now feel quite famil­iar.

Hyper­ki­net­ic, sur­re­al­ist, and bizarre, 200 Motels is a mélange of ani­ma­tion, musi­cal per­for­mance, crude jokes, and “a kind of mag­i­cal mys­tery trip,” wrote Ebert, “through all the motels, con­cert halls, cities, states and groupies of a road tour.” It was not beloved by crit­ics then (though Ebert gave it 3 out of 4 stars) and still gets a mixed recep­tion. It may or may not be the “kind of movie you have to see more than once,” giv­en its full-on sen­so­ry assault.

But Zappa’s exper­i­men­tal tour de force is essen­tial view­ing for Zap­pa fans, and also for stu­dents of the video­tape aes­thet­ic that has become an almost clas­sic style in its own right. We can see in 200 Motels the roots of the music video—Zappa was a decade ahead of MTV—though, for bet­ter or worse, its “whim­si­cal­ly impen­e­tra­ble plot­line and absur­dist sub-Mon­ty Python humor,” as Ian Git­tens writes at The Guardian, “were met with wide­spread baf­fle­ment and it sank with­out a trace.”

In the 80s, how­ev­er, 200 Motels found new life in a for­mat that seemed well suit­ed to its look, VHS. Then it found a home on the inter­net, that Val­hal­la of ancient video of every kind. A tout­ed DVD boxset, it appears, will not be com­ing. (Seems the dis­trib­uter has been slapped with a “wind­ing up order” of some kind.) But you can find it on disc, “intact and with the cor­rect aspect ratio” as one hap­py review­er notes.

What­ev­er medi­um you hap­pen to watch 200 Motels on, your expe­ri­ence of it will very much depend on your tol­er­ance for Zappa’s brand of scat­o­log­i­cal satire. But if you’re will­ing to take Roger Ebert’s word for such things, you should try to see this odd­ball piece of movie his­to­ry at least once.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Frank Zap­pa Explains the Decline of the Music Busi­ness (1987)

Hear the Musi­cal Evo­lu­tion of Frank Zap­pa in 401 Songs

Frank Zappa’s Amaz­ing Final Con­certs: Prague and Budapest, 1991

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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