Monday, May 28, 2012

200 Motels

Aside from his hardcore fans, most people are likely unaware of Frank Zappa’s dabbling in film. In the early 1970’s, he teamed up with director Tony Palmer to produce a film that would show what happens to a band after they’ve been on tour for too long. What came out of that collaboration is a cacophony of rainbow nightmares and incomprehensible skits.

200 Motels stars Zappa’s backing band, The Mothers of Invention, playing versions of themselves as they go stir crazy in a small town named Centerville, desperately trying to get laid and/or drunk (or as they put it, trying to find that magic elixir).

On top of that, it also features Theodore Bikel as Rance Muhammitz, a man who has “many names” and might also be Satan, Keith Moon of The Who as a groupie dressed like the Flying Nun, and Ringo Starr as Larry the Large Dwarf who spends his time impersonating Frank Zappa.

Zappa himself only appears in the film a few times, never speaking or singing. However, the band members do believe he’s an omnipresent figure who is always watching them through an empty beer bottle.

The actual narrative of the film is made up of various skits, which look like they were shot after hours on the set of a PBS kids show, live concert footage, and general freak outs where deciphering what is happening is pretty much impossible. Nothing makes sense. The combination of screeching music and screeching visuals are enough to induce a migraine. It’s like something out of Videodrome


It manages to keep that visual style up throughout the whole thing. This works at times, but after awhile it wears out its welcome.

Most bizarre head trip films tend to give the audience something to hold on to while watching it, like a floating piece of the wreckage after the ship sinks. That stray sense of relatable normality or recognizable narrative that makes the movie accessible despite its psychedelic nature. 200 Motels has barely anything resembling that. The entire time you’re wildly grabbing at the air trying not to drown in its absolute chaos.

Despite frenzied visuals and bizarre storylines, films like Hausu or The Holy Mountain work because they give you relatable characters and create a world full of images that are at least comprehensible. 200 Motels is what happens if you throw spin art in a blender.

It’s not all bad though. There’s many times where the film does manage to work, even if only for a scene or two before getting lost again. The concert sequences are highlights, and are really when the visual style works the best. There’s also a really funny animated bit halfway through about a guy trying to get drunk and high, delivered to the audience under the guise of a dental hygiene cartoon.

If the screenshots intrigued you, then 200 Motels is certainly worth a look. But don’t expect any sort of masterpiece, or any sort of plot for that matter.

200 Motels is currently available to watch on Netflix Instant. A DVD exists but it appears to be a collector’s item.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Breeding the Super Soldier: Captain America as a Propaganda Piece

In all likelihood I’m not the first person to realize and write about this (after all the film has been out for almost a year now) but Captain America: The First Avenger is military propaganda at its finest. It seems that in recent years a New Wave of propaganda films has begun. Blockbuster films like G.I. Joe and Act of Valor, which glorify the American military, are becoming more and more commonplace, and Captain America is just another helping of militaristic, patriotism-inducing images.

I really shouldn’t be surprised that a movie about a man who is dressed in the American flag is being used to glorify the military, but at the same time I am. I like Captain America as a character, but I’ve always been more interested in him as a conflicted hero. Someone who stands for everything America is supposed to stand for - all those ideals fed to him by Fourth of July parades and the Pledge of Allegiance, but is then forced deal with the reality of an oppressive and corrupt government that has bastardized the stars and stripes and no longer represents the morals that it once stood for.

Captain America: The First Avenger is instead ripped right from a 1940s war serial. It returns the character to his original time and once again utilizes him for the exact reason he was manufactured in the first place – to instill in young children a strong pro-America, pro-military mindset.

Captain America feels like it wouldn’t be out of place in a World War II era movie theater, being played right after the newsreel telling audiences about whatever military victory happened that week. The entire film is soaked in propaganda. In fact, what impresses me the most is the movie’s earnestness. It knows it’s a piece of propaganda, and in a post-modern musical montage, the character within the film becomes a propaganda piece himself.

In the film, he travels with a troupe of showgirls performing a song and dance bit while encouraging his audience to buy war bonds. So within a film designed to win the hearts and minds of young Americans, Captain America is being used to win the hearts and minds of fictional young Americans.

This acknowledgment of the movie’s doctrine is taken even further by the filmmakers. After the final scene, what is the first image flashed across the screen, even before the “Directed by” credits appear? Uncle Sam saying “I Want You”. The credits sequence may very well be the most important part of the film; it’s made up of authentic American propaganda posters from the war. It’s almost as if the movie is telling us, don’t think of this as a film, think of this as a recruitment tool.

But ultimately, what drives the pro-American message home is how unbelievably pure and relatable Steve Rogers, the man who becomes Captain America, is. Anybody who has ever felt weak or bullied will see themselves in him. But in addition to the meek little figure that he is, he may very well be the most cartoonishly noble man to ever walk the Earth. He stands up for what he believes in no matter what the consequences, he’s kind, likeable, and he’s even willing to die for his country. Hell, for the first half an hour of the film his only real character trait is that he wants to join the military. So what is the message to little kids? If you want to emulate Captain America, you need to join the Army.

And, if you do enlist, you’ll no longer be small and defenseless. When he reunites with his best friend Bucky, Bucky is amazed at Steve’s physique. He asks him “What happened to you?” Captain America’s response? “I joined the Army”.

It should be noted that, in a manner befitting of propaganda films, the horror of battle is casually glanced over in order to glorify America’s superior strength and nobility. Death isn’t depicted as particularly gruesome or painful – instead, thanks to sci-fi energy weapons, it’s just a quick disintegration and it’s done with. There’s no suffering in Marvel’s World War II. During several battle sequences, disposable American soldiers run into combat with the evil HYDRA’s enemy troops. But while the camera focuses on Captain America taking out enemy henchmen, soldiers are consistently killed in the background. They’re hit a by a blue laser, then they’re gone. That’s it. No blood, no agony. Just a split second of screaming and it’s done with.

These background soldiers are nothing. Nobody in the movie pays attention to the men dying around them. Nobody mourns the loss of fellow soldiers after the battle. The film can’t ignore that death during war is inevitable, so it instead downplays it. It makes it something that just sort of happens in the background while everyone in the audiences projects themselves onto Captain America. Captain America isn’t the nameless extra who’s shot, killed and then forgotten, he’s the one riding a cool motorcycle and bashing people’s faces in with a shield.

It had potential. It really did. It could have been a deep satire of old jingoistic war films that tried to rally everyone into the American Bandwagon. Instead it proudly joins their ranks, bringing old time conservative ideals to modern audiences. Should you think independently? Not according to Captain America: The First Avenger. When the Red Skull tells Cap that his reign will be a world without flags, the good Captain tells him it’s not a world he’d want to live in. So join the Army and die for your flag. It’s all that Steve Rogers wanted to do with his life, why shouldn’t it be what you want too?

I wouldn’t let a child watch this movie. It would be dangerous to their development.