One of my cousins – who likes to refer to me as “his favorite” – will often text me at odd hours, jokingly asking about my urge to go party. Once even, he flat out stated, most seriously, that an acid trip would do me well. Personally, I for one am not interested in taking LSD or even smoking pot – as much as I support legislation to legalize – but as a film critic/fan, I do actively seek out the cinematic equivalents of a freakout. Filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky have advocated for movies to do this, and have even made attempts to accomplish this feat. Some get close, some not so much, but a few are right on. And it is to these few that I give a humble thank you to.
This April 20th will see a 420 Film Fest at The Broad Theater here in Mid-City New Orleans. 420 is the celebratory holiday for those who toke. Those who smoke. Those who midnight joke, perhaps? It’s an all-day programming block featuring cartoons and movies about, involving, or geared to stoner culture and the joy of using cannabis. And, at the forefront of this festival, will be a rare big screen showing of the Frank Zappa classic 200 Motels.
My interest in Zappa’s music had been passed down from my father many years ago, who, whenever reminded of the uber creative musician, will bring up a fond story of seeing 200 Motels in a theater setting. More than a decade has gone by since I first watched what I can only and appropriately describe as one of the more confounding, eye-straining, and mind-creaming experiences of my film related life, and while I wouldn’t trade my first viewing memory for anything, I do get jealous that my dad saw this when it was freshly released.
Jealous, because my initial watch came about from a curiosity download of the full movie from one of those mid-2000s bit torrent sites. The way I thought about grabbing my copy this way was that, at the time, since it was not readily available for purchase except in expensive VHS form, it would be “ok” to break the law in this one instance. My anticipation was high, but my self was not (of course). Laid back on my couch, laptop propped on my stomach, headphones on, I hit play.
One hour in, and I wanted to put a bullet through my headache. After the second hour, I was on Mars.
Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention – along with a cameo from Ringo Starr – threw in a disclaimer before the “narrative” began, about how life on the road can make one crazy, and that this is a film approximating that feeling. Indeed, from skit to skit, from an orchestra behind a barbed wire fence to band mates trying to find their ring leader, to wild video effects and general nonsense, 200 Motels does, without a shadow of a doubt, make one crazy. Though, it might be better to say bipolar. My emotions throughout ran the gamut from heavy happiness to numbing anger, all at the click of a button. It’s impressive, to say the least, in how the movie is able to induce such attitudes and behaviors.
Afterward, I tried burning a DVD for my older brother (it didn’t work), then shut my computer down, and took a nap. Upon waking up, I reflected on everything I had seen and if there were anything I wished to unsee. Sure, 200 Motels is not an easy watch at all. You may want to tear your hair out at certain points, even. But, would it be a true freak out if it only wanted to be pleasant? The film doesn’t hide its subversiveness behind anything at all, laying it on the surface before tossing it up into the air, awaiting for gravity to return it to the ground, most violently. Antagonistic? Yes, but with a smirk.
I may not partake in mind altering drugs, but I don’t need to, for I’ve visited 200 Motels. Thank you, Zappa.
200 Motels screens on 4/20 at The Broad as part of its 420 Film Fest lineup.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.