Frank Zappa: Composer & Social Critic

Introduction

Frank Zappa’s extravagant 200 Motels is a film that so much differs from what one is used to see during a normal movie viewing that the first emotions it brings about are confusion, embarrassment, astonishment and perplexity. Such is the psychedelic power of it that the viewer is swept along in a ragged stream of images, sounds, and associations. Although due to serious disagreements during the shooting process the movie was not completed according to the initial plan as the director, several actors and a band member quit mid-production, it still contains a message about the surreal state of the political and cultural life of America and the world during that time. The peculiarities of the shooting process which took only five days, also contributed to the frantic and frenetic character of the movie, which is extremely hard to grasp without making any references to Zappa’s own life and viewpoints. Especially captivating is the video/musical collage that has received the title of “Dental Hygiene Dilemma” — and that has barely anything to do with dental problems proper, rather reflecting the emotional state of one of the planned cast members, Jeff Simmons.

Discussion

The cartoon episode opens with appearance of Donald Duck as a dentist, and sounds “han toon ran toon ran toon fran min han toon ran toon nan toon fram” made by Jeff’s Bad Conscience. That inarticulate sequence reminds of Zappa’s dental memories he published in The Real Frank Zappa Book:

“I had horrible teeth, so my parents used to take me to an Italian dentist who had a unique piece of equipment — a cross between a chainsaw and a sewing machine. He’d stick the thing in my mouth and it would go voodn-voodn-voodn-voodnnnnnn — no novocaine. I learned to dread the sound of the word ‘dentist.’“ (p. 7)

The sounds of dentist’s machine bring about a necessity for retreat — on the one hand, from unpleasant sensations caused by the dental operations; on the other hand, from Jeff’s own Good Conscience, by obeying to which he does not experience any satisfaction in life. The ‘novocaine’, which Zappa lacked in his childhood, appears for Jeff as “great stuff” that is “leading” and “guiding” him “on the paths of everlasting pseudo-karmic negligence, in the very midst of [his] drug-induced nocturnal emission” (200 Motels). In referring to state induced by drug usage, Zappa refers to the popular practice among musicians of the time to take drugs as a means of escaping from the disappointing reality — and not only as a medical necessity to relieve pain and unpleasant feelings during medical procedures.

Another connection to real events can be seen in the fact that Bad Conscience which emerges as a consequence of Jeff’s drug taking artfully persuades him not to “waste his life, night after night playing … comedy music” and to leave Zappa’s “stern employ” in order to “get [his] own group together” (200 Motels). Mark Volman’s exclamation “Jeff _is_ flipping out. Road fatigue! We’ve got to get him back to normal before Zappa finds out, and steals it, and makes him do it in the movie.” appears to be prophetic, as Jeff was the person who really did quit the band just prior to shooting — and in Zappa did introduce the episode to the movie (200 Motels). In the remark “Jeff’s imagination has gone beyond the fringe of audience comprehension” Zappa scornfully laughs at such treachery of the ambitious bassist and warns against abuse of popularity by extravagant escapades, though he himself was far from being modest in that respect (200 Motels).

Conclusion

All-in-all, the six-and-a-half-minute fragment of “Dental Hygiene Dilemma” presents a curious piece for consideration as it contains allusions to Zappa’s life which may help to decipher the seeming meaninglessness of the sequence.

Works Cited

200 Motels. Dir. Frank Zappa. Pinewood Studios, 1971.

Zappa, Frank, and Peter Occhiogrosso. The Real Frank Zappa Book. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1999. Web.