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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.