A MOVIE FOR YOUR EARS: FRANK ZAPPA AND CINEMA
by John A. Riley
I usually do about 10, 14 hours in the studio, seven days a week, until the rehearsal schedule starts.The only thing I would see as a worthwhile interruption would be l00% concentration on a feature film.
Frank Zappa, Filmmaker?
Frank Zappa, author of more than fifty albums ranging from raucous rock to jazz and classical. Satirist and outspoken political commentator who loathed the encroachment of the moral majority onto civic life and their subsequent interference with constitutional right to free speech. Enemy of hypocrisy and self-importance. Enthusiast of quotidian vulgarity and champion of the dense, maximalist aesthetic of composers Pierre Boulez and Edgard Varese. Forward looking futurist who envisaged a world of electronic music and internet downloads. Chauvinist, conservative and tight-fisted small businessman. Filmmaker?
Maybe. Zappa sometimes aspired to the status of a filmmaker, and although his own filmography is chequered at best, his audiovisual interventions are often insightful and provocative. Further, his musical legacy has left and intriguing and unlikely influence on the field of cinema.
Zappa’s music rejected the pomposity and pastoral mysticism of much of 1970s progressive rock. And yet much of his music was cinematic, perhaps in a different way to the widescreen technicolour fantasies of contemporaries like Yes and … Zappa’s music aspired to the status of a “movie for your ears”[i] and this was true from a very early age. While still at high school, the teenage Zappa scratched parts of the emulsion off a roll of 16mm film and had an ensemble of schoolmates soundtrack it with his score. Most likely unaware of American avant-garde filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Zappa’s first known experiment in audiovisual synchronisation evinces an interest in the material qualities of what he was working with, and a freewheeling “anything goes” approach that is truly experimental, not results-oriented.[ii]
There was always a cinematic influence of film on his music: tunes such as “Re-gyptian Strut” and “Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus” speak of the overblown cinemascope epics of the Hollywood on the Tiber era and their perverse obverse; the cheepnis of the badly-dubbed pepla. But Zappa’s professional involvement with film occurred before even the release of his first album Freak Out!
1962 saw Timothy Carey, best known as one of the gangsters in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, write direct and star in The World’s Greatest Sinner, with a soundtrack of raucous, straight-up rockabilly penned by Zappa. The film’s themes – the messianic qualities of rock performers, bizarre and unpleasant sexual perversion – are quintessentially Zappa-esque. Also, Carey’s performances of tightly-wound, controlled insantity are exactly the kind of thing Zappa would try to deploy through sidemen such as Wild Man Fischer and Ricky Lancelotti.
A sympathetic high school teacher, Don Cerveris, who understood Zappa’s talent and sympathised with his reluctance to attend pep rallies and … got Zappa a contract to write the score for a low-budget western Run Home Slow (also 1962). Though a rarely seen footnote in the sprawling Western genre today, writing the score was obviously a formative influence on Zappa: many of the cues he composed would find themselves used in Zappa’s sprawling audiovisual project 200 Motels (1971), which I will come to shortly
Zappa (who once famously remarked “most musicians make a million dollars and stuck it up their noses. I stick mine in my ear.”) invested the money from Run Home Slow in a recording studio, the environs of which were to double as the set for an abortive film project, Captain Beefheart meets the Grunt People.
Yet another abortive project, Uncle Meat was also abandoned as a film project, resulting in the release of a soundtrack album – a soundtrack without a film – of intricate, often Medieval sounding music in 1969. In the late 1980s, Zappa cobbled together a version of the Uncle Meat (1987) film for home video release using rehearsal footage and new interviews (In some, the original cast members watch the footage shot two decades earlier and comment on it) The use of found footage, and of unlikely juxtapositions (the footage from the 60s is superimposed over the video, the original film blurring into its own retrospective making of documentary) have their analogues in Zappa’s late 60s experimentations on albums such as Lumpy Gravy and Weasels Ripped My Flesh.
The willingness to test the boundaries of watchability that constitutes the Uncle Meat film continues through Zappa’s other audiovisual projects, notably 200 Motels. This film, which received a cinematic release, was directed by Tony Palmer, who had found fame by directing the film of Cream’s farewell concert. Ostensibly a parody of the emergent rock movie and rock opera genres, setting out to explore the theme that “touring can make you crazy”, the project involved into a bizarre comparison of the milieu of rock and classical music, with Zappa finding both built on status and competition. Classical musicians are just as calluous and unscrupulously promiscuous as rock musicians, they’re just dressed up in tuxedos so that you can think that they are precious. Despite clocking in at 2 hours, only a third of Zappa’s shooting script was shot. Zappa was out of his depth on a massive sound stage with a full orchestra on-set and the unhinged Keith Moon charging around, dressed as a nun. But something was hacked together in the editing room. As Zappologist Ben Watson notes:
200 Motels was in its production constrained by the twin tormenting calipers of time and money, but far from letting them pinch him, Zappa uses them to tweeze us: uses them as metaphor for our activities (“Is this waste of time what makes a life for you?”)[iii]
Reflecting on the bizarre, wooden acting, the obviously fake pantomime sets and the occasional moments of sublime music, Watson goes on:
Zappa’s particular skill: to encourage real flaws in the technical illusion, extend them into flaws in the real world, so that the fault and the guilt become seamless, a seemless presentation of reality through a shoddy shambles.
Baby Snakes (1979) is ostensibly a concert film: It showcases Zappa’s late 70s stadium rock parodies with camera operators roaming the stage, getting in amongst the performers. But again Zappa includes rehearsal footage, and several guarded interviews in which we hear nothing but memetic in-jokes, and band member Roy Estrada endlessly abusing a blow-up doll. The camera crew get up close to the performers, gaining an insight into how they play, how they interact musically, but off-stage we learn very little of note about these musicians and their personalities. Perhaps the word “meme” is crucial here. Zappa wants to show his musicians as empty vessels, carriers of his jargon and his musical expertise.
Apart from the stunning footage and music (too often near-ruined by these crass interruptions) the film’s main contribution was to introduce the work of animator Bruce Bickford to a wider audience. An “outsider artist” living an ascetic existence and working constantly on films in his basement, Bickford’s animation brings out the more brutal, disturbing qualities of Zappa’s musical universe, where “the torture never stops.” The 1988 home video production The Amazing Mr. Bickford is Zappa’s most successful and satisfying audiovisual production. It couples several of Bickford’s dense, teeming films with Zappa’s classical compositions, including his collaborations with Boulez.
In Bickford’s thematic universe, tit-for-tat violence and metamorphosis are the only constants. Characters and scenery morph into one another with dizzying rapidity and cartoonish viscerality. Hulking, top-heavy figures eviscerating each other. Wolverine heads, disembodied but still snarling. A Totemistic phallus unleashing chaotic powers. These are some of Bickford’s typical images.
Zappa’s deployment of Bickford is, I believe, is part of Zappa’s ongoing investigation into xenochrony, a musical term coined by Zappa to describe “experimental re-synchronisation” of different musical performances to create new textures, polyrhythms and effects. Zappa’s coupling of his own intense orchestral works with Bickford’s films is a form of audiovisual xenochrony. Though the films and compositions were originally created for different purposes, music, lyrics and imagery frequently match up, creating unexpected associations.
Interviewed in Baby Snakes, Bickford explains one of his idiosyncratic works by saying simply that the “evil doings on the disco floor have their counterparts in the dungeon below.” This uncanny soundbite can be seen as relating to the melding of his work with Zappa’s: Both thrash around on their own, but occasionally there is a correspondence: a moment where music and imagery escalate together. Doubtless, Zappa had plans to continue his audiovisual experiments that were stalled at development or cut short by his early death, but The Amazing Mr. Bickford stands as a testament to his musical ingenuity and his keen understanding of cinematic sensibilities.
Does Claire Denis Like To Freak Out? And Other Pertinent Questions
Where else can traces of Zappa’s influence be found in cinema? His love of the 1950s horror and science fiction B movie movie aesthetic(which he called cheepnis) has made it into the lampoons of TV series Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Rob Zombie (who at points in his career bore a resemblance to the Lumpy Gravy era Zappa) dedicated his musical and cinematic efforts to glorifying the aesthetic of cheepnis (the low budget special effects and narrative corner–cutting that Zappa loved to note in 1950s science fiction) and in homage to Zappa included a character called Uncle Meat in Halloween 2. However, Mr. Zombie’s interest in this aesthetic is purely a surface one, he doesn’t penetrate any further than the re-deployment of horror tropes.
The drug-addled hitchhiker who talks about Zappa in Richard Linklater’s film Slacker is perhaps the archetypal “deadhead” and who would turn up to Zappa concerts to freak out to the lengthy guitar solos. Ang Lee judiciously chose music from Zappa’s Overnite Sensation album (the point at which critics accused Zappa of totally abandoning his art rock credentials in favour of slick, cynical stadium rock) to soundtrack teenage boys smoking bongs in his The Ice Storm (1997). The album is the perfect accompaniment to Lee’s portrayal of stultifying 1970s suburban interiors and deep-seated sexual tension.
But it would be a mistake to consign Zappa’s cinematic legacy to portrayals of drug-addled teenagers and horror parodies. Zappa’s influence has also taken a deeper root in cinema. Indeed, two of the most interesting films of the late 1960s/early 1970s era, Medium Cool (1969) and WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) have a keen sense of the Zappa-esque.
Medium Cool deals with a cameraman who documents the civil unrest in late 1960s Chicago, and who gradually turns from mere observer to participant in the events. Haskell Wexler, director of the film, was an avowed Zappa fan. He was evidently inspired by Zappa’s satirical jibes about civic unrest, and included two such songs in the film.[iv] But Medium Cool is note merely a film with some of Zappa’s music in it. The mix of documentary and fiction, the one bleeding into the other: Just as Zappa would make field recordings of his bandmates and their salacious demands of groupies, Wexler’s film contains scenes of cameramen discussing their craft – they are discussing the line between recorder, witness, spectator and participant. The whole film questions the idea of this line, at a time when world events were making it harder and harder to perceive the distinction.
Crucially, the scene in which one of Zappa’s songs is played in a nightclub features footage of a wholly different band. No attempt is made to even disguise the fact that the band on screen are not playing. This audiovisual disjunction, or xenochrony, is characteristically Zappa.
Zappa’s music took root in Eastern Europe and is still popular there today. Dusan Makavajev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism, from Yugoslavia, shows a highly Zappalogical sensibility whether directly influenced by his music or not.[v] Ostensibly a documentary about controversial sex theorist Wilhelm Reich, the film makes the Zappa-eque move of folding in other, perhaps irrelevant material. As well as information on Reich and interviews with people who knew him, there is also footage of countercultural rock star Tuli Kupferberg cavorting on the streets of San Francisco, and a fictional thread about a Yugoslavian woman’s romantic involvement with a Russian ice skater that ends in the eruption of violence that Reich saw as the end result of sexual repression.
I’ve spoken of Zappa and Bickford’s pungent collaborations. Something in Zappa’s music has the qualities of both cartoonish parody and uncanny nightmare that make it well-suited to animation. Animated series such as Ren and Stimpy and The Simpsons have an overt Zappa influence. Even Thunderbirds creator Gerry Andersen included an excerpt of Suzy Creamcheese’s voice from Uncle Meat in his idiosyncratic noir parody Dick Spanner.
As mentioned, Zappa’s music became popular in Eastern Europe, and this was nowhere more apparent than in Czechoslovakia, where his music influenced their legendary underground rock band Plastic People of the Universe and their first post-communist president Vaclav Havel. With this in mind, one has to wonder if the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer is interested in Zappa’s music. Watching the dusted, intricate, faded, baroque images of Svankmajer’s Faust or the frenzied, senseless hedonism of Conspirators of Pleasure one can imagine Svankmajer planning these works while listening to the crystalline intricacies of Uncle Meat or the polyrhythmic acrobatics of Guitar.
But the most Zappaesque animator is America’s Bill Plympton. As meticulous a craftsman as Zappa (he is known for hand-drawing every frame of some of his features) and as creative a businessman (The Tune (1992) features several set-pieces which were made first and could function as standalone short films; these were then touted at festivals in order to secure funding for the rest of the film), Plympton’s films have the same malleable, intricate, ever-shifting qualities as some of Zappa’s best music. They also have moments of Zappa’s ribald humour. Plympton combines the two to great effect in I Married a Strange Person’s (1997) sex scene. The protagonist, Grant, is able to effect external reality with the power of his imagination. Tupping his wife, he transforms her into a pneumatic statue of liberty, an all-American cheerleader and (most alarmingly) a giant rabbit. Soon all the objects in the room begin to have sex in a polyamorous, animistic orgy: the two power outlets in the wall take a liking to each other, the lightbulb begins to frantically unscrew itself from its socket.
Plympton’s films are accompanied by songs penned byMaureen McElheron. Her keen melodic sensibilities and understanding of popular music’s stock modules have the same breezy familiarity as some of Zappa’s most hummable tunes. McElheron’s talents are best put to use in The Tune, in which a harassed songwriter, again tweazed by time and money, desperately tries to come up with a hit single.
Zappa’s views on homosexuality are, like most things that he did, cranky and problematic: His song “Bobby Brown Goes Down” reached no.1 in the Norwegian charts thanks to its salacious documenting of gay and S&M practices, it would get played in gay club there. But in that song, and in his epic junk-opera Thing-Fish, Zappa equates homosexuality with the unmasculine and the submissive. Whether seen as a taboo busting provocation of conservative attitudes or just old-fashioned bigotry from a rock dinosaur, his music was an unusual choice for Wong-Kar Wai’s homosexual love story Happy Together (1997). Here the film director gets a chance to subvert Zappa. When the two lead vocalists from The Turtles joined the band, he would orchestrate routines where one played a groupie, the other a rock star – a list of bizarre sexual practices would be bandied about, and the groupie would then importune the rock star for a rendition of his biggest hit – which was of course The Turtle’s song “Happy Together”. In these stage routines, it is of course two men flirting with each other, which may be what made this song seem so appropriate for the film’s subject matter.
“I Have Been In You” with its soaring doo-wop vocals and filthy lyrics, is transformed in the film into a heartbreaking song that tracks the breakdown of the relationship. Wong also used the instrumental “Chunga’s Revenge”. Alongside the melancholy music of Caetano Veloso, gave a melancholy, nostalgic quality to the tune that the macho Zappa might have been reluctant to note. Wong is notable for finding an entirely appropriate yet subversive use for Zappa’s music and (perhaps more admirably given the Zappa family trust’s tight stranglehold on the back catalogue) gaining permission for it to be used.
Trouble Every Day (2001), by French director Claire Denis, has the same name as one of Zappa’s best known songs. Does Claire Denis listen to Frank Zappa? Perhaps it is hard to picture her nodding sagely to “Titties and Beer” a knowing smile crossing her lips because it’s a bawdy re-telling of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat.” But rather than trying to answer this question empirically, I’d rather point out some resonances between the two. Just like the song “Trouble Every Day”, which reflects on the media’s hunger for sensationalistic ways of presenting the carnage of the Watts riots of the late 1960s, Denis’s film plays on this idea of a hunger for sensationalism.
But moreover, just as Zappa’s work seems to offend the sacred cows of rock hero worship and classical respectability,Denis’s film is poised somewhere between the respectability of the arthouse and the furtive pleasures of horror film and it’s boneheaded relative, the cannibal movie. Trouble Every Day has been called a film maudit, one maligned by audiences and critics alike. This recalls Zappa’s active baiting of critics, and testing the limits of his own fans with near-unlistenable works such as Thing-Fish. Too often critics are only tastemakers; the keepers of consensus. Whatever else one says about the excesses of Zappa and Denis, they cause critics to break cover and reveal their true nature as fusty moralistic dandies.
It Can’t Happen Here: Conclusion
Responding to the ubiquitous allegations that Zappa has no “soul”, critic Andy Wilson writes that:
For” soul” we should read “collusion in making ‘hip’ consumers—square, monied and fake—feel good about themselves.”[vi]
This idea of feeling good about yourself is especially pertinent to contemporary cinema, where terms like “independent” are perceived as being less about financial and ideological self-reliance and more about reinforcing and promoting the identity of self-satisfied hipsters, dandies whose taste, they believe, puts them at a remove from the rapacious consumers of the cheepnis of mass culture.
Zappa’s refusal of high/low distinctions is not the mere playful that has come to be known as postmodernism, inspiring so many wearied yawns in lecture theatres the world over. Zappa’s infuriating, sometimes unsatisfying, often illuminating practice, applied to cinema, can help us gain a holistic picture of the medium, artistic masterpieces alongside cookie cutter artefacts of manufacture. Despite the perception of Zappa as “soulless” his views on criticism, intellectualism and taste can be summed up in what he told a guitar magazine in the early 1990s:
The most interminable, grinding composition. Even if it’s well conceived, should you be forced to consume it because somebody says it’s artistic, or should you consume it because you like it?[vii]
Zappa’s argument is relevant to the stifling consensus of audio-tuned radio pop and to the dusty, well-thumbed masterpieces of the canon.
With thanks to Ben Watson and D. Weintraub.
[i] From the sleeve note to his Hot Rats album.
[ii] For further information and analysis, see the chapter on Zappa’s formative years in Ben Watson: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (Quartet Books, London, 1995)
[iii] Ben Watson, “In Respect of Rubbish”, available at the Militant Esthetix website:
[iv] It is interesting to note that Wexler would later go on to act as cinematographer on Dennis Hopper’s best film Colors, which features early Zappa doo-wop composition “Memories of El Monte”, placed incongruously alongside hip hop and Herbie Hancock.
[v] For an insightful and detailed commentary on this film, see Raymond Durgnat’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Bfi, London, 1999).
[vi] Andy Wilson, “Fear of Music”, available at Unkant.com
[vii] Quoted in David Wragg, “Or Any Art At All? Frank Zappa Meets Critical Theory” Popular Music Vol. 20, no. 2 (May 2001) p. 206