EDIT NEWS: 200 Motels on DVD
Published April 2010
200 Motels on DVD
Frank Zappa's 1971 big-screen venture 200 Motels has not been particularly well-preserved on VHS over the years. Although there have been several releases and re-releases, these have tended to be sourced from the same slightly iffy video masters with no attempts at any kind of upgrade.

The first ever (official) DVD release of the film last month on the Voiceprint label should have been the perfect opportunity to rectify this. Sadly, this release - overseen and 'restored' by original co-director Tony Palmer - stands out as not only the worst edition of the film ever commercially released but could actually hold the honour of being the worst DVD ever compiled.

Before we get to the many reasons why, here's a brief overview of how the film came to be (pending a much longer and more detailed article which will be added later).

200 Motels was originally the title Frank Zappa bestowed on a completed suite of orchestral scores which he'd been scribbling over a period of about four years, usually in motel rooms while the original Mothers of Invention were touring in the late-60s (the title being an rough estimation of how many such motels he'd booked into over that period). The suite was eventually given its premiere performance at the UCLA by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, on May 18 1970 as part of a sell-out concert (which also featured an interim 'Mothers' performing a few old favourites).

A subsequent live tour with a new line-up of The Mothers (which included Turtles vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who were on the guest-list of the UCLA gig) saw one concert filmed for the Dutch TV channel VPRO, and it's likely that this was the point at which plans began forming to turn 200 Motels into a television special: an expanded version of the LA gig, with enhanced fantasy sequences, orchestra and rock band performing live to camera, and a storyline depicting 'Life on the Road' of touring musicians. Throughout the rest of 1970, Zappa wrote and revised the various scenarios which would feature in the storyline, as well as composing fresh orchestral scores, and new songs which the Mothers showcased during the tour.

"I am a cosmic love pulse matrix, becoming a Technicolor interpositive!"

Tony Palmer on the set of 200 Motels, Pinewood Studios, February 1971
At some point in around October 1970 there was, as Zappa described it in the press at the time, 'an expansion of the project' after director Tony Palmer (who had previously featured him as one of the interviewees for the 1968 BBC Omnibus film All My Loving) showed him an experimental VT-to-film transfer he'd made of a live concert. Impressing Zappa with both his quick-cut vision-mixing - performed live to the rhythm of the music - and the general picture quality of the transfer, Palmer was duly employed as Director. The TV show was now a fully-fledged movie project. A meagre movie budget was negotiated with United Artists, on the strength of a 10-page outline, some audio recordings and a bunch of enthusiastic press reviews (although the real deal-clincher was doubtless the rights to the accompanying soundtrack LP being thrown in - providing a boon for the recently relaunched United Artists Records label).

It was hoped that, by effectively shooting a movie as if it were a TV production - on 2 inch Quadruplex tape - the whole process would be rendered both faster and cheaper, with instant playback eliminating the need to wait for dailies and the live vision-mixing radically cutting down on post-production editing time. Since the European standard PAL video system afforded a better quality picture than NTSC in the US (and the Technicolor VT-to-35mm transfer process didn't even exist Stateside anyway) it was elected to shoot the film in England, at Pinewood Studios. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were booked to play the live orchestral score, pop icons Ringo Starr and Keith Moon, and folk singer Theodore Bikel, were hired to play some of the more fantastical characters, and the Mothers (old and new) were on-hand to mug their way through the completed 254-page script, playing 'versions of themselves' and thundering through the rock numbers which, given the intensity of the previous tour, were already rehearsed to perfection.

The shoot commenced on Thursday, January 28 1971 and wrapped on Friday, February 5. Seven eight-hour days of studio filming - interrupted by a weekend which was doubtless given over to some hasty script discussions as it soon became clear that the film couldn't be made in the allotted time period, at least not in the way Zappa had originally envisaged. Of the script's 101 scenes, only about two-thirds actually made it to the cameras - with whole chunks being dropped on a daily basis from the schedule, and simpler 'compromised' set-ups (often just retaining the base elements of scenes which originally involved complex choreography) written in by way of maintaining some degree of concession to 'continuity' for the final editing stage.

Scenes from 200 Motels: 1. The Mothers 'pretend to be nice' to Frank Zappa via the TV camera; 2. Howard Kayan and Mark Volman getting to grips with Centerville; 3. Keith Moon as The Hot Nun 4. The entire cast assembles for the finale.

Stills from Zappa's own Super 8 footage
of TVR during the editing of 200 Motels. Top: The Rancid Boutique and Martin Lickert eating the 'mystery burger' visible on the VT screens. Bottom: Tony Palmer clowning for the camera.
Despite the dropping of several scenes (including the bulk of an extended suite of songs and scenarios known as the 'Groupie Opera'), Zappa still mused, to Record Mirror shortly after filming was completed, that 200 Motels would 'decorate two hours and forty minutes of somebody's time', rather suggesting that he believed they'd captured enough video to allow for this.

After eleven days of bickering in the claustrophobic environment of TVR studio on Windmill Street, Zappa, Palmer and a crack team of VT editors managed to assemble a working rough cut. By now throwing such cinematic trifles as 'narrative' and 'plot' to the four winds, the film's scenes were re-ordered, split into different sections (often spliced with or overlayed onto others) and generally twisted about a bit - rendering an already odd project decidedly bizarre. The notion of 200 Motels as a 'surrealistic documentary' at least offered some kind of get-out clause for such artistry. As Rance Muhammitz (Theodore Bikel) explains in one early scene, "Within the conceptual framework of the filmic event, nothing really matters. It is entirely possible for several subjective realities to co-exist. It is possible that all things are a deception of the senses!"

The rough-cut on VT was transferred to 35mm and flown over to the US for further editing, refinements and audio mixing - by which time Tony Palmer had all but disowned his involvement in the whole project and began bad-mouthing it in the popular press, even apparently claiming at one stage that he'd unsuccessfully attempted to have his name removed from the credits (a claim which Zappa later dismissed as a shameful and barefaced lie during an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test on November 16, 1971, insisting that Palmer's contract specified "very strongly that he get plenty of credit on the film!").

Aside from the superimposed titles, credits, ten-minute animation sequence (and possibly the insertion of the Super 8 clips), it's difficult to guess at exactly how much the rough cut on VT differed from the final 98 minute final edit - although Zappa claimed, in a December 1971 interview for Time Out, to have edited the film down from an original running length of 120 minutes. More recently, Tony Palmer has claimed that everything in the script was shot and that very little was cut out...

"May the Lord have mercy on the fate of this movie, and God bless the mind of the man in the street..."

The one-sheet
200 Motels premiered in the US on October 29 1971 to mixed reviews but a surprisingly healthy box office. The UK release a few weeks later amusingly saw the film sharing broadsheet review space with The Anderson Tapes, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Up The Chastity Belt and Carry On At Your Convenience. On November 7 1971, Tony Palmer seized a final opportunity to kick the whole project in the nuts with a barbed review of the soundtrack LP in his 'pop' column in the Observer, insisting that it was tied with 'one of the worst films in the entire history of the cinema'. Confronted by Sounds a few weeks later with Palmer's review, Zappa opined 'That's quite a distinction. But then he's such a controversial little rascal.'

While certainly a technological innovation at the time, being shot and edited on PAL and then transferred to 35mm yielded some annoying side-effects, most notably in terms of the film's running time. PAL video runs at 25 frames-per-second whereas films are projected at 24. It would appear that the solution - such as it was - to this conundrum was a reversal of the traditional PAL telecine process, which speeds films up from to 24 to 25 fps for TV broadcasts. In other words, 200 Motels slowed down the action from 25 to 24 fps - thereby increasing the running time of the VT-captured scenes by 4% and, naturally, rendering the dialogue and music rather sluggish (aside from the animated sequence which, having been created for film in the first instance, ran at the correct speed). Ironically, the PAL-telecined editions of the VHS, released by Warner Video in the 1980s, speed everything back up to 25 fps, affording the viewer the only official opportunity whereby the original performance speed can be enjoyed (since NTSC editions, using 3:2 pulldown, are more or less reflective of the cinematic running time).

"If there's one thing I really get off on, it's a nun suit painted on some old boxes"

Which brings us to a brief (and by no means complete) VHS release history. The videography on Information Is Not Knowledge lists the earliest VHS as being a Warner Home Video release in Germany 1984 (PGX 9949). Its listing as an NTSC tape is presumably erroneous however.

First UK PAL release
(PEV 99498)
The first UK VHS release was in 1985 (Warner Home Video PEV 99498) in a large rental-sized box with a cover design featuring a few elements from Dave McMacken's original poster artwork (The Zappa face; Rance Muhammitz and Larry the Dwarf; Cowboy Burt and the Rock and Roll Interviewer) pasted against a white background and framed in what appears to be a generic Warner Home Video cover template (a photograph of the collage paste-up - with black ink fill-ins and cut-out lines clearly visible - used to be viewable on the MGM website. This art was seemingly kept on-file and used for all subsequent re-releases!).

The cover design didn't feature a certification symbol, evidently having been printed up before the UK's Video Recordings (Labelling) Act had been passed. An '18' certificate sticker did however appear on the outer-casing.

Running at 96 rather than 98 mins due to the PAL transfer, the picture quality was quite passable, with only perhaps a little unnatural red tinting throughout. However, the audio track of the print was in pretty ghastly shape, with several sections suffering from distortion (resembling grinding and gargling - especially annoying when it affected songs which don't appear on the soundtrack album and were unavailable elsewhere) and others experiencing sudden audio drop-outs for no readily explained reason.

It is presumed that one amendment to the film for the VHS release would have been the substituting of the eerie 1981 'revolving' United Artists ident at the beginning of the film, replacing the 1968 'United Artists - A Transamerica Company' logo which was in use during the time of its original release. All subsequent VHS releases of 200 Motels also used the 1981 ident.

UK PAL re-release
(PES 99498)
The UK Warner Home Video tape was reissued in 1988 as a sell-through (V PES 99498), with an amended cover which set the illustration paste-up against a bright blue background and the title of the film rendered in a curious pink typeface. Sadly, to all intents and purposes, this was the same video master as used on the 1985 release, audio distortion and all, the only slight difference in content being the addition of an on-screen BBFC certification before the film begins.

An NTSC edition (WB PES 99498) was seemingly released in the US at the same time. All NTSC editions reviewed for this article appear to be pretty much interchangeable and are telecined from a different print to that used for the PAL releases. Leaving aside the usual differences in picture quality between the two systems, the colours on the US versions aren't as bright, giving the whole thing a slightly muddy greenish-brown look. Although no grinding distortion occurs on the soundtrack as per the UK tapes, the audio itself is rather dull and bassy by comparison. There are also slight speed wobbles during 'Strictly Genteel'.

It's worth noting at this point that, although 90s TV broadcasts of the film in PAL territories (eg in the UK on the BBC) tended to favour the good picture/grinding audio edition found on the UK tapes, a more recent broadcast by Finnish station YLE Teema favoured the murky picture/dull audio US edition. The latter was 25 fps PAL - but converted from NTSC without the speeding-up process.

In 1994, MGM/UA Home Video issued a further NTSC edition in the US (M200423) which, once again, set the cover paste-up against a white background - although they get extra marks for replicating the original 200 Motels logo in red. As far as we can tell, the same US video master was used, sandwiched between an 'MGM/UA Home Video' logo/fanfare. A UK edition as part of a MGM/UA 'Rock Classics' series also appeared (S050423) - with the paste-up set against a purple background and the title logo in yellow (and inverted commas). It isn't currently known for certain which master was used for this but doubtless it wasn't a fresh source. A French-subtitled SECAM edition also appeared on the MGM/UA label around this time, with the paste-up accidentally reversed (no doubt a transparency cock-up) and set against a blue background with the title in pink. It's likely that this is the edition posted to video streaming site Dailymotion a while back and which can mainly be compared to the PAL editions in terms of picture quality and audio problems.

US (M200423)
UK (S050423)
French SECAM edition
US Laserdisc (ML100423)

An MGM/UA laserdisc release in 1997 (ML100423) was, until last month, the closest official 'digital' release of 200 Motels. Once again, if the screengrab on Information Is Not Knowledge is anything to go by, this appears to have been sourced from the same muddy-looking analogue masters as the NTSC VHSs - although inevitably looking slightly sharper by dint of a digital transfer.

Although there were reported suggestions that a 200 Motels DVD would be released - to tie in with the first ever CD edition of the soundtrack album on MGM/Rykodisc - nothing appeared on the shelves. Unsurprisingly the underground market cleared up over the ensuing decade, with several bootleg discs doing the rounds (often being sold openly in stores and online) - but these have usually been straight captures from the NTSC or PAL VHS editions, with little or no attempts made to clean up the source. One bright spark did share his attempts at a 'remastered audio' version, with some visual tinkering on the picture and some of the songs on the soundtrack replaced by the stereo mixes from the CD (without realising that those songs would need to be slowed down by 4% in order to fit the NTSC visuals).

With the overall distribution rights being retained by MGM/UA, no official Zappa-endorsed edition ever made it to the home-video market. The budget for Zappa's 1987 retrospective documentary The True Story of 200 Motels (released on VHS on his own Honker Home Video label) seemingly didn't even stretch to acquiring the rights to include clips from either the film or the original sound recordings, relying instead on behind-the-scenes footage shot for documentaries made by VPRO in 1970/71, live tapes of The Mothers and alternate performances of orchestral sections from his London Symphony Orchestra LPs). A terrible shame since one would have expected, at the very least, an all-out remastered stereo remix from the original mastertapes.

"They're gonna clear out the studio..."

Working out exactly who has ultimately owned the rights to 200 Motels over the years is itself a little confusing - with United Artists being swallowed up by MGM in 1982; Turner Entertainment Co. evidently acquiring MGM's pre-1986 catalogue in 1986 (but with distribution still handled by MGM); Pathe buying MGM in 1991 (with Warner Bros handling the home video distribution), etc, etc.

One question which should really be asked at this point however is this: if Frank Zappa experienced such hurdles in acquiring the rights for a release back then, how on earth has Tony Palmer managed to do so now? Did the film accidentally slip out of copyright while nobody was looking (as per The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, which has also yielded a poor-quality DVD release)? In no part of the 200 Motels DVD packaging do we find (just for example) the words 'Under license from MGM'. Copyright is given pretty firmly on the disc label as (c) & (p) Voiceprint Records 2009.

Voiceprint DVD

In the months leading up to this release there were several claims from Tony Palmer that the original VT masters had been found and were sitting on his shelves. He was very keen to debunk the myth that these had been destroyed (or, as Zappa claimed in The True Story of 200 Motels, ordered by producer Jerry Goode to be 'erased and sold as "Used Stock"' as a means of balancing the budget of the film).

Whether the tapes found were indeed the original PAL session tapes, or even the VT rough-cut, was never fully explained (at the time of writing, Palmer's obituary of Zappa's ex-manager Herb Cohen credits him with the 'discovery of some of the original master tapes of that film'). Asked if the forthcoming DVD would feature out-takes, Palmer claimed that they were 'currently examining the material'. All of this seemed pretty exciting - the notion of a fresh transfer from 1971 source material - perhaps even a straight video presentation with all its fields intact (and at the correct performance speed to boot).

Tony Palmer these days
In addition to proclaiming the survival of the masters, Palmer seemed pretty keen to use the opportunity to debunk a whole lot of other apparent myths concerning the making of the film, to the extent of writing a long essay dealing with each of them, one by one (the text would eventually be reused in the accompanying DVD booklet). It should be said however that, more often than not, Palmer's attempts at indignantly swatting aside the more exaggerated biographical accounts while substituting his own 'truthful take on events', don't quite tally with some of the historical (and contemporaneous) evidence available. Certainly, the final line of the essay, to wit, 'So, forty years on, I'm proud to be associated with the film, proud to have known Frank Zappa, and proud to have stayed his friend, in spite of all the rubbish that (mostly) others have written about what 'really' happened.' would have sounded particularly droll for anyone who remembered his published 1971 opinions on the matter!

Well, give the 'controversial little rascal' his due, one might think. He can rewrite history in his own image to his heart's content as long as he's sufficiently 'proud' of the film to at least present it properly on DVD. Why, he can even retitle the film, Tony Palmer's Film of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels (thirty-nine years after he claimed he was trying to have his name removed) as long as the end-result stands firmly as a glowing testament to the brief, fractious but ultimately fruitful working partnership of two mavericks in their respective fields.

Unfortunately, it doesn't. It looks like shit.

1. The Aspect Ratio

"The wide-screen erupts with absurdities..."

It's probably worth clearing this up from the outset. Being shot on PAL video, clearly the original captured picture was a straight 4:3 (ie a full-screen TV image). Indeed, all previous VHS releases (and TV broadcasts) have presented the film as such. IMDb however gives the correct aspect ratio as 1.66:1, which was the European 'widescreen' standard at the time. So although the 35mm image would have been soft-matted by the projectionist for cinema showings (shielding off the top and bottom of the screen), the VHS compilers opted for an 'open-matte' presentation. With this having become pretty much accepted as the norm over the years it tends to be a little difficult to convince its fans that there ever was a 'wide-screen' version of 200 Motels.

There are several instances in 200 Motels where it seems obvious that the original picture was composed to fit within a 1.66:1 frame. Most notably the scene where Rance Muhammitz (Theodore Bikel) addresses the cinema audience as a blue screen overlay against Mark Volman's huge face. A fantastic image spoiled by the fact that, at open-matte, there's a gap just below his ankles - messing up the illusion of him supposedly walking in front of the cinema screen. Calculating a correct comparison from VHS editions poses a slight problem in that there's no way of knowing exactly how much of the original 35mm picture was framed by the telecine (and that's before you get to niggles like the disparities between full screen VT and cinematic 'Academy ratio') but a rough cropping of the 4:3 picture to remove black strips of VT 'nominal analogue blanking', and an application of a fake soft-matte should give us a fair indicator of how the film should be framed:

Open matte on the PAL VHS edition
Illustrative Soft-matte to 1.66:1

Other scenes affected by the lack of soft-matting include shots of the hotel rooms where the tops of the sets are clearly visible (although, as an illustration, these are perhaps less reliable, considering the stylised 'everything's fake' conceit of the film).

The behind-the-scenes footage in the VPRO Frank Zappa filmt 200 Motels documentary shows that the VT monitors capturing the live action often have strips of masking tape placed over the tops and bottoms of the screen - seemingly a prehistoric version of the 'shoot and protect' guides used today.

The best proof of the film's correct cinematic aspect ratio however can be found here in the form of a photograph of the cinema screen during a midnight showing at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis on April 11, 2009.

It's taken at an angle, but a bit of messing about with perspective in Photoshop gives us a pretty clear 1.66:1 shape when compared to an equivalent full-screen shot of the same frame:

(Thank you to pinkothinker for use of their photo and extra info)

When a trailer for the DVD appeared on Tony Palmer's own YouTube channel in late 2009, the 6:52 clip (of 'Penis Dimension' and part of 'She Painted Up Her Face') was cropped to the standard widescreen TV ratio of 16:9. A little too narrow for those who might have hoped for 1.66:1 - and outright vandalism to those who refused to accept that it should be cropped in any way shape or form. However, since many of the trailers on the Palmer account had been presented as 'widescreen' (including his TV film All My Loving) this was no indication of how the eventual DVD would eventually be presented.

In retrospect, a straight widescreen TV crop now seems almost reasonable. The Voiceprint DVD of 200 Motels is advertised as 16:9 - and by default plays as 16:9 - but is actually a full screen picture artificially stretched to widescreen. In technical terms we have an NTSC 4:3 (720x480) image distorted horizontally to 853x480 - like some bad parody of an anamorphic release.

Original PAL VHS
Voiceprint DVD (viewed at the default 16:9 setting)

Actual dimensions of the NTSC file
(set against a true 4:3 frame)
No problem, you might think. Simply hit the 4:3 aspect ratio button on the remote and watch it full screen. However, in many cases this may not display a geometrically-correct image either, since the picture has been cropped slightly. Not to 1.66:1, not to 16:9... but to 3:2 - ie the actual dimensions of an NTSC videofile rather than its Display Aspect Ratio. With information now missing from the top and bottom of the original 4:3 screen, the chances of watching the film properly without it being stretched in one direction or another are theoretically slim - or at the very least dependant on the veracity of your DVD player.

Perhaps the only reliable way to watch the picture in anything approaching the correct dimensions would be to bypass the disc's IFO files completely and watch the unstretched 720x480 VOBs. It probably wouldn't be a perfect representation but it would be the closest! Unless otherwise specified, the rest of the screenshots in this article will be favouring the latter option.

2. Picture Quality

"That was Billy The Mountain, dressed up like Donovan, fading out on the wall-mounted TV screen..."

'Restored from the original sources', declares the sticker on the front of the shrink-wrap. 'Remastered from original tapes', boast most of the online DVD stockists.

Whether those claims of rediscovered tapes were true or not, one thing should be made absolutely clear here: no such primary 'original sources' were at hand when this DVD was compiled. Unless those sources happen to include a scratchy old well-worn theatrical print which, given the state of the washed-out colours and various analogue glitches, appears to have been telecined to videotape a long time ago. In fact, the odd discoloured, smudgy picture bears all the hallmarks of a conversion between two non-compatible systems (eg from NTSC to PAL or vice versa), rendering the whole thing similar to how videotaped US sitcoms used to look on British TV before the advent of digital transfers.

Why such a shitty old copy of a shitty old print should be used - for a DVD released in 2010 - is a complete mystery, especially given that MGM actually released a fresh 35mm print from the original negative for various US cinematic 'revival' showings in 2009 (reported in some quarters as boasting a cleaned-up multi-channel mix and, with modern transfer techniques at play, rendered looking better than it ever previously has on the big screen). One notable showing was on August 27 when America Cinematheque presented it as part of a double bill alongside Zappa's 1979 movie Baby Snakes. In recent years they've also presented Palmer's films All My Loving and All You Need Is Love (the former with Palmer present) so you'd think he'd at least be on their mailing list!

So, some visual comparisons. As previously mentioned, the picture quality of the old PAL and NTSC VHS releases tends to differ somewhat (and neither are a perfect representation of the original film), so what should the current release be compared with? It's probably fair to say that the most reliable indication of how the colours should look comes to us in the form of the original United Artists theatrical trailer included as an 'enhanced track' on the MGM/Rykodisc 1997 CD release of the soundtrack album. Even as tiny 320x240 MPEG and MOV files the colours on the trailer were quite an eye-opener to those only familiar with the film on VHS.

Original United Artists trailer
Voiceprint DVD

Ringo Starr and Theodore Bikel: Note how the trailer retains the nice, warm shiny look of the original VT recording. The DVD edition has all this dulled out, the flesh-tones rendered a pinkish grey, In terms of 'Technicolor' there's plenty of Red and Blue but a distinct lack of Green!

Original United Artists trailer
Voiceprint DVD

Janet Ferguson and Lucy Offerall: While the PAL VHS adds some unnatural redness to the picture it appears to retain the overall colour brightness. All missing from the DVD.

Original United Artists trailer
Voiceprint DVD

Don Preston and his vile foamy liquids: Again, the VT colours are screwed. Studio lights glistening on Preston's forehead all lacking.

Original United Artists trailer
Voiceprint DVD

The 'Dental Hygiene Dilemma' animated sequence: One of the biggest casualties of this DVD release - Cal Schenkel and Charles Swenson's nice garish brush-strokes reduced to timid pastel shades.

As a further comparison, here are some scans of the actual animation layouts as featured in the original 200 Motels LP booklet (not the CD edition which just used a load of poor screengrabs from video).

Yes, even slightly messed-up scans - captured via a machine which is so old you can't even find the right drivers for it anymore - illustrate perfectly that the colours on this DVD are wrong.

Production photos should probably fall outside the scope of these comparisons. But the colour difference is so vast in this case it can't really hurt...

United Artists production photo
Voiceprint DVD

As a final visual comparison here's some tits. A selection of screenshots from various versions of 'Half A Dozen Provocative Squats'.

BBC Christmas Tape
Voiceprint DVD

Although not a very sharp screen-capture, the first picture is probably the truest example of 'primary source' VT colours in that it's captured from a BBC VT engineers' Christmas Tape assembled in 1979 (Good King Memorex). The three-second clip is used as part of a spoof newspaper ad which boasts "an interview with a lady who plays the National Anthem on her breasts" and - in true 200 Motels style - messes with the VT motion so that it runs forward, then backwards, then forwards. Note the extra picture information on either side and the top of the screen compared to the VHS editions.

3. Sound Quality

"God, well it was so obviously cheap..."

Hopeless. As dull, muffled and bassy as the old NTSC VHS editions, but somehow sounding a lot worse.

The sound levels are also not constant throughout. There are instances - eg a few seconds into the song 'Mystery Roach' - where it sounds as if someone in the mastering booth wasn't expecting a sudden loud rock track and pushed the faders down a bit to avoid straying into distortion levels.

Interestingly, the audio on original 1971 prints of 200 Motels were apparently mastered 3db below normal - with specifications made to the cinema to whack it up to 6db above normal when projected (which, mono or not, would have attacked the senses nicely within the echoey confines of the local Gaumont).

4. Missing Sections

"What if part of it's crumbling down? Most of them probably won't be 'round..."

There are two specific bits of dialogue missing from the DVD. The first occurs during the scene at the boutique which first introduces groupies Janet Ferguson and Lucy Oferall:

But I like the drummer with the rivets on his clothes, he's not bad.

Yeah, I've seen him too. He just screams "Englishness," with that little haircut and the rings...

And the binoculars?


Didn't you notice his binoculars?

No! He's got binoculars?

He watches us through them. He's a pervert!

Oh! I get so hot just thinking about perversions. Maybe when we go down to the fake nightclub tonight we can meet him, and find out if he really is perverted.

200 Motels
Murakami Wolf / Bizarre Productions, 1971

The Janet/Lucy scene was just about salvageable despite the missing section. At least the dialogue doesn't suffer greatly from losing that one line. The same can't be said for the handover to Ringo Starr at the close of 'Penis Dimension' which, in its current state, makes no sense whatsoever.

And if you're a guy. One night you're at a party trying to be cool. I mean, you aren't even wearing any underwear, you're being so cool. And somebody hits on you one night, and he looks you up and down and he says, uh...

"Eight inches or leeeeesss..."

Well let me tell ya, brothers. That's the time when you gotta turn around and look that sonofabitch right between the eyes. And you gotta tell him these words...


I stuff three pair o' socks and a bar of beauty soap
down the front of my pants!


200 Motels
Murakami Wolf / Bizarre Productions, 1971

The uncut scene as it appears on
the PAL VHS editions.
The reason these sections are missing is pretty simple to guess at (but no less annoying for that). It's the result of using damaged source material.

Utilising old theatrical prints as a DVD source (rather than original negatives or interpositives) is often problematical. Constant runs through the projector inevitably result in a build up of dirt marks and scratches (which are always more evident at the start and end of each reel) and occasionally the celluloid physically snaps during the reel changes through overuse. Sadly, that appears to be what's happened here. The sections were either physically missing from the tape of the print or else considered too damaged to include.

The average length of a 35mm reel is approximately 20 minutes. In 200 Motels, the reel-changes occurred at the following points:

Reel Change 1:
Occurs in the middle of Janet and Lucy's dialogue - just after Janet's line "He watches us through them - he's a pervert!". Reel 2 begins with Lucy's "Oh! I get so hot thinking about perversions."

Reel Change 2
Occurs at the close of 'The Girl Wants To Fix Him Some Broth' - just after the final line, "Which do you choose...?" (and the fade-to-black - incorporating a few seconds of audio of 'The Girl's Dream'). Reel 3 continues with the rest of 'The Girl's Dream' playing over the scene where Motorhead Sherwood is seen reading a book of Fairy Tales to the Vacuum Cleaner.

Reel Change 3
Occurs at the close of 'Penis Dimension' - just after the final line "You gotta tell him these words...". Reel 4 begins with Ringo's "I stuff three pair o' socks and a bar of beauty soap down the front of my pants!"

Reel Change 4
Occurs at the close of Don Preston's phone call to Zappa - just after the line "You got any idea when we're gonna get paid for this?". Reel 4 begins with explosions as the set is blown up under 'What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning'.

'The Girl Wants To Fix Him
Some Broth' - freeze...
Reel Changes 2 and 4 are comparatively less messed-up on the DVD. There's still an increase of dirt and scratches at those points but nothing much has been lost (although a fake digital freeze and black-out occurs at the close of Reel 2, seemingly to disguise the arse-end of the ratty print (as stated above, originally the scene faded to black); and a few notes are subsequently missing from the start of 'The Girl's Dream' - although only about as much as was missing from the old NTSC VHS). The end of Reel 4 (ie the credit sequence) also begins to disintegrate towards the end - but we'll be covering that later...

It's worth noting that the version of 200 Motels posted to Dailymotion (most likely the SECAM edition mentioned earlier) also suffers from reel-change problems during the handover from 'Penis Dimension' to Ringo, although only the first second of Ringo's line is missing from that print.

Also of note is that, on the DVD, before the first Reel Change, the nominal analogue blanking (ie the thin black strip on either side of a VT picture) is exclusively on the right-hand side of the screen. At the point of the Reel Change it suddenly jumps to the left, suggesting that each Reel was archived on a different tape. More on this later.

Film join during 'Daddy Daddy Daddy'
Inevitably, there are also a few instances of 'joins' throughout the DVD (where the celluloid has snapped at some point and been spliced back together with sellotape, omitting a frame or two and causing nasty jumps in the soundtrack). Notable instances of this occur during 'Daddy Daddy Daddy' (at 1:14:01), 'Strictly Genteel' (at 1:28:01 and 1:36:16), and 'Postlude' (at 1:37:57).

Another example of missing material occurs at the very beginning of the film. Although it is possible that this section was also damaged there appears to be an altogether more suspicious reason behind the cut. Which brings us to...

5. Copyright Revision

"I don't even mind you ripping it off me as long as I get paid..."

The opening title sequence has been digitally altered to snip out all references to Murakami Wolf / Bizarre Productions. This has involved:

a) Physically removing the first six seconds of visuals (more if you count the United Artists ident as being part of the film), thus cutting out the MPAA logo and the beginning of the Super 8 footage of Motorhead Sherwood dancing (under the caption 'A MURAKAMI WOLF / BIZARRE PRODUCTION; color by Technicolor'). Tony Palmer's revised edit fades in on the action at the exact moment the caption disappears and the 'MOTHERS OF INVENTION' logo appears on the screen. In order to disguise all this - and still provide a long enough sequence for the opening theme ('Semi-Fraudulent/Direct-From-Hollywood Overture') to play over - the dancing footage has been slowed down to about half its original speed (only returning to normal once we fade through to the orchestra shots. Despite all this, the very beginning of the opening theme is clipped slightly and the soundtrack cuts in with a nasty bump.

Shots from the opening of the PAL VHS editions.

b) Stretching the picture vertically during the title graphic, thus cropping off the copyright info underneath (MURAKAMI WOLF PROD. INC. BIZARRE PROD. INC.; COPYRIGHT (C) MCMLXXI ALL RIGHTS RESERVED) accordingly. Ironically, this distortion of the picture represents the only point throughout the whole of the DVD that the movie can be viewed in its correct geometrical dimensions - albeit only when watched at the otherwise useless 16:9 ratio.

PAL VHS edition
Voiceprint DVD (at 16:9)

6. Patch-Ins

"...spiritually impaired and chemically corrupted..."

Two views of Volman - from
two separate sources
The bad tape of the bad celluloid print clearly isn't the only material used for the DVD. There are instances where sections have been replaced using bits and pieces from alternate sources.

An instance of particular note occurs at exactly 0:25:36 into the DVD during the final chorus of 'Lonesome Cowboy Burt'. As we cross-fade from Jimmy Carl Black to Mark Volman and then to George Duke - the footage of Volman has been replaced (via some non-too-precise fades which attempt to replicate the original vision mixing but result in a slight double-image, possibly due to the size of the sources differing slightly).

Curiously, the pasted-in alternate source seems to be much better quality, in fact resembling original VT colours rather than discoloured celluloid (there's even some evidence of the hitherto dulled-out Technicolor green on Volman's microphone as it reflects the studio lights). Comparing this with various other editions however it seems most likely that this section has simply been snipped from the NTSC laserdisc edition and treated to a slight decrease in colour saturation to make it match the surrounding clips a little better. There are still dirt-flecks in evidence, but these are white rather than black (ie slight abrasions on the original negative - identical on all prints of the film).

Sadly, the shot only lasts a few seconds. By the time we fade through to George Duke we've returned to that nasty print again.

Now, if that was possible to do with this scene, why couldn't something similar have been undertaken with Ringo's "three pair o' socks" amusement at the close of 'Penis Dimension'?

7. Overscan Anomalies

"...beyond the fringe of audience comprehension"

All editions of 200 Motels sourced from analogue master tapes include the traditional amount of 'dead area' on the left and right-hand side of the screen in the form of a black strip - known as 'nominal analogue blanking'.

However, the DVD edition features some really quite extraordinary screw-ups which look for all the world as if someone is attempting to correct the amount of black edging that's visible - manually, as we watch, using analogue equipment - resulting in the picture signal becoming wobbly and distorted for a few frames each time. This can be seen occurring at 0:07:46 during a shot of Don Preston and Motorhead Sherwood...

Before (black edge on the left)
During (view full-size for awfulness)
After (black edge now on the right)

...and again at 0:14:31, during the second Interviewer ballet - except this fiddling results in more of the right-hand black strip becoming visible...

Before (black edge on the right)
During (view full-size for awfulness)
After (more black edge on the right)

8. Inexplicable Blurring

"Forgive him, for he knows not what he does... on the other hand, maybe he does know..."

Several scenes on the DVD have sections of the screen blurred. The first instance of this is during the preamble to 'What Will This Morning Bring Me This Evening' at 1:10:09, as Howard Kaylan, sitting at his make-up table, begins his I sprayed my pits..." monologue, and continues throughout the rest of the scene. The green lines in the below examples highlight the areas where the picture has been blurred.

Blurring on Voiceprint DVD

Note that even the analogue blanking gets blurred in the process...

When the colourful 'What Will This Morning...' sequence begins however it gets worse - with the left-hand blurring now expanding to encompass Kaylan's entire face. The blurred section on the right remains as before, leaving only a small section of the screen (ie about half of the overlayed image of Zappa) uncorrupted.

Blurring on Voiceprint DVD

The blurring ceases at 1:11:55, exactly at the point that the cutaway to the Super 8 on-the-road home movie clips begins. When we return to the performance footage of Kaylan a few seconds later there's no blurring whatsoever.

Quite why all this was undertaken is a complete mystery. There's a nasty celluloid scratch running down the middle of Kaylan's face, but no more nasty-looking than other parts of the film.

There's some evidence to suggest that the blurred sections may also be patch-ins - ie overlays from an alternate source tape. During 'What Will this Evening Bring Me This Morning' - at 1:23:04 (during the montage of explosions, the vacuum cleaner being attacked and the extreme close-up of Zappa's eye) another blurred portion of the screen fades in, but doesn't quite match the rest of the picture. This finally fades out at 1:23:26 after Jeff's begins his "flipping out" scene.

Two more instances of blurred content occur during the ensuing Fake Nightclub scene ('Daddy Daddy Daddy'). The first from 1:14:20 - 1:14:38, the second from 1:15:16 - 1:15:29. On these occasions the whole frame is blurred. These sequences also appear to have been pasted in from an alternate source since, although the scrapes and scratches on the print seem to be identical, the black VT edge on the left appears to increase in size during the blurring.

9. The Credits:

"...credit for special material..."

Just when you think nothing else could possibly mess up this release, we get to the credit sequence which, in addition to the information missing from the top and bottom of the screen, now has two whopping great big black bars on either side, managing to obscure the first or last letters of the longer credit-lines.

Voiceprint DVD

Note that the print used on the old PAL edition colour-tinted the script and production pages the credits run over, whereas the print used for the NTSC did not. The DVD retains some kind of tinting - but not necessarily the correct colour!

Voiceprint DVD

It is doubly annoying since those script and production pages make for interesting reading - and, despite all the misgivings about the print and colour quality, the DVD does at least render the text sharp enough to read properly. Just a shame that the cropping removes a large chunk of one of the few reasons left to acquire this disc at all.

Voiceprint DVD

Who to blame...
The appalling state of the credits in terms of dirt and scratches certainly suggests that it was pasted in from a different source from 'Strictly Genteel'/'The Finale' which has just finished. But why the missing areas? Were these areas perhaps also missing from earlier parts of the film (resulting in those blurred patch-ins to cover it up)?

So, the end of the film spool approaches, the dust, scratches and jumped frames suggest that the celluloid is heading for oblivion, and we reach the final scrolling, typewritten 'END' on the budget sheet... at which point the picture suddenly freezes (well, almost), most of scratches are gone, the left-hand vertical letterboxing has decreased slightly, and a digitally superimposed credit declares '© Re-mastering Isolde Films 2009' (Tony Palmer's own company).

Now we'd have kept that one quiet. But there you go...

10. The Menu

"I'm deeply offended by your lack of artistic sense..."

A 16:9 menu with a background featuring the blue-tinted cover design of the DVD packaging. Pretty basic, crappy little logo slightly animated. 'Penis Dimension' (dubbed from the film) plays over the top.

The 'Chapters' and 'Audio Options' menus each use freshly-created montages of elements from the original LP booklet as backgrounds. The 'Chapters' screen also boasts the audio clip of 'Penis Dimension'.

It should perhaps be mentioned here that the main cover uses a version of Dave McMacken's artwork which was specifically rendered for use on the LP cover rather than the theatrical poster. It had been decided not to use Ringo Starr's features to sell the LP so Zappa requested a version of the painting which didn't feature his likeness in any way. Indeed, even the illustration of Larry the Dwarf descending from the heavens with his magic lamp has Ringo's face replaced by that of an expressionless dummy for the LP. The Voiceprint DVD kind of rectifies this situation by sticking a photo of Ringo as Larry the Dwarf on the back cover.

With so many elements of the original LP packaging being pilfered for the design, you'd think the compilers could at least have taken the opportunity to check the correct songtitles for the chapter titles. Sadly, it would appear that, in most cases, a simple lyric quotation was considered sufficient:

1: Enter Larry the Dwarf - Ringo
No mention of the open titles - and why namecheck 'Ringo' here specifically?
2: Touring Can Make You Crazy - The Mothers
Although a voiceover uses this phrase at the beginning of this chapter (and 'Touring Can Make You Crazy' is the name of an orchestral/ballet piece which occurred at this point in the script but which didn't make it to the final cut of the film), the song being played by The Mothers here is actually called 'Mystery Roach'.
3: Rance Muhammitz and the Steaming Cheeseburger And Frank is WATCHING!!
Well, it's a 'steaming briefcase' containing (on this occasion) a cheeseburger, but let's not split hairs...
4: "I don't know too much about this stuff - do you?"
The piece playing as this chapter begins is actually 'Dance of the Rock N Roll Interviewers'. The quote (minus the "do you?", which is completely erroneous) comes from a section later on in the chapter which isn't named but is all that remains in the film of a longer suite of songs which went by the title 'What's The Name of Your Group?'.
5: "Centerville - a real nice place to raise your kids up." including the Rancid Boutique
The song is simply called 'Centerville'.
6: "This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich"
Actually just a short section of the full 'This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich' suite called 'The Sealed Tuna Bolero'.
7: Lonesome Cowboy Burt
Spot on.
8: Ringo speaks about the life of a musician!
Well, Ringo as Larry the Dwarf as Frank Zappa does...
9: "Oooo...the way you squeeze me, Baby."
Oh, come on, Tony. You're not even trying now! The song is called 'Magic Fingers'.
10: Redneck Eats
Fair enough, the scene does take place there - not to be confused with the title of the musical piece which, again, was scripted for this scene but not filmed.
11: The raving nun (Keith Moon) and THE NEWTS while the girl wants to fix him some broth!
Keith Moon taking centre-stage here? The songs in this sequence are 'The Lad Searches The Night For His Newts', 'The Girl Wants To Fix Him Some Broth', 'The Girl's Dream' and 'A Nun Suit Painted On Some Old Boxes' - All part of the 'Pleated Gazelle' suite.
12: The Dental Hygiene Movie
As a description, fair enough, although the correct title is 'Dental Hygiene Dilemma' (also incorporating 'Does This Kind Of Life Look Interesting To You?').
13: The Groupies rescue the Nun from his death bed
Well, after a fashion.
14: "Penis Dimension"
Another correct title - although the inverted commas suggest Voiceprint aren't entirely certain!
15: "She Painted Up Her Face"
Another correct title...
16: "Half A Dozen Provocative Squats" & "Shove It Right In"
Nice of them to give the late Lucy Offerall's norgs their own chapter. Tony Palmer most likely remembers a few of these titles from the court case in 1975 when he defended 200 Motels against accusations of obscenity.
17: Ringo is finding some pussy & BWANA DICK
'Ringo' is doing no such thing. Neither is his character, Larry the Dwarf - he's simply overseeing/commenting on the action. There's no 'c' in the 'Dik' of 'Bwana Dik' and (although the scene does feature both Howard Kaylan and Aynsley Dunbar fooling themselves that they hold the role of this mythical sexual hero) the song 'Bwana Dik' doesn't actually appear in the film. Again, the song was brought up during the court case in 1975.
18: "What Will This Evening Bring Me"
The correct title is actually 'What Will This Morning Bring Me This Evening'.
19: "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy"
20: Vile Foamy Liquids
A fair enough description.
21: The Vacuum Cleaner is attacked!!
He is - but the song which goes along with it is called 'What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning' (a reprise of the earlier song, obviously)
22: Jeff's trip
All fine.
23: THE END, except for "Lord have Mercy on the People of England..." Followed by "We have to get wasted"
The correct title of the piece is 'Strictly Genteel' and encompasses 'The Finale'.
24: End credits
Music title: 'Postlude'

11. The Commentary

"You should be careful talkin' about that stuff..."

Oh man, there just isn't the time. It's entertaining enough, in a 'two old buggers scoffing on about pop culture' kind of way (the other 'old bugger' being Jon Kirkman, who at least appears to display a little more knowledge about Zappa's work than Tony Palmer cares to). There are certainly some interesting bits and pieces of technical info scattered amidst the blether. But if part of the point of this commentary really was to lay a lot of those niggling myths about 200 Motels to rest then it's failed somewhat. There are certainly more dubious 'truths' revealed over the course of the 98-minute conversation than general reportage of the film has thrown up over the course of 39 years.

I mean, when you... when you'd finished it... um, did you... did you think...

I burnt the tapes!

(LAUGHS) Yes, you burnt the tapes, they disappeared, yes! Um, did you sit back and think 'My God, that was an experience and a half'?

No, not really. I mean, I... I thought then what I think now, really, that I was very... I felt very privileged to have been part of it. What it was about, what its future was, I had no idea. And it's very odd, 38 years later, to be looking at it again and thinking 'actually, I'm glad I did that!'

200 Motels - commentary track
© Voiceprint 2009

Ah well. Such a shame that it took Palmer quite so long to reach the above conclusion. As it currently stands, the Voiceprint DVD only really serves as a final insult to 200 Motels.

Tony Palmer showcasing the very latest developments in digital transfer technology

Special thanks to the guys at Zappateers and the Zappa.com board for extra observations.