200 Motels (Tony Palmer, 1971)

by Smart

This isn’t so much a movie as it is a conglomeration of ideas, performances and general wackiness. It does have a narrative, I think, however it is bizarre and constantly broken up by various musical numbers, which differ wildly in terms of quality and appeal. I guess it is more or less a psychedelic musical, although categorising 200 Motels seems almost insulting to the work itself. It was the first feature length film to be shot entirely on video tape, and this gives it a distinctly volatile aesthetic, where sharpness and accurate colour reproduction are about the last things you are going to get. This did however allow them to use (and more often than not misuse) the most cutting edge video special effects available in the early 70s. The immediate result of this experimentation is that multiple bits of footage frequently overlay each other to create painful, eye-burning visual montage, which luckily went out of fashion before it ever invaded mainstream cinema. I am only a light Frank Zappa fan, so no doubt many of the supposed ‘hidden messages’ went straight over my head. Still, the daft nature of the film is immediately apparent and conveyed well, especially since the lead role is played by Ringo Starr, which is amusing enough in itself.

All the acting is sufficiently awful and ridiculous, the camera work and editing are beyond amateur, and the story line is a total mindfuck. Naturally, this all helps the film to communicate a strong sense of paranoia and drug-induced mayhem, because as the narrator tells us at the start “touring can make you crazy, ladies and gentleman, that’s what 200 Motels is all about”. I have no arguments against this assertion. Underneath all the juvenile debauchery and lewd dialogue there seems to be a lot of interesting commentary going on. Stabs are taken at the music industry, at social and political constructs, at artistic integrity, fakery, drug and alcohol use, and there are even questions of identity and gender roles raised. I can’t say these ideas are particularly well developed, but at least they are there to give the viewer something deeper to think about. There are a few scenes which showcase a lot of artistic creativity, such as when they mix real video footage with cartoons and other forms of animation. This eclectic barrage of styles and mediums is hypnotic, even though I really had no inclination as to what I was witnessing. For a film missing the majority of its script and having a miniscule budget, I think it succeeded pretty well as a peculiar sensory experience, but that still does not make it any less of an enormous mess.