Rixflix A to Z: Baby Snakes (1979)

Director: Frank Zappa (also Writer, Producer, Music, Co-Editor) // Intercontinental Absurdities; 2:46; color
Crew Notables: Richard Pearce & Phil Parmet (cinematography), Bruce Bickford (clay animation)
Cast Notables: Frank Zappa, Adrian Belew, Dale Bozzio, Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta, Warren Cuccurullo, Roy Estrada, Jennifer James, Phil Kaufman, Ed Mann, Tommy Mars, Patrick O'Hearn, John Smothers, Peter Wolf, Ron Delsener, Johnny Psychotic, Donna U. Wanna, Diva Zappa
Cinema 4 Rating: 8

Look, you are either going to get Zappa, or you are not. I am proud to be counted amongst his legion of admirers. These people have many reasons for loving the man: as a virtuoso guitar god; a master satirist who spit our social mores and popular culture back out at us with a sly grin; or as a groundbreaking composer of avant-garde music. Many, far too many, see him simply as a
guy who wrote some outrageously funny, dirty and shocking novelty songs. I tend to go with the second and third reasons, but there is great merit in all of them, and I won't deny anyone the pleasures inherent in delving into his catalogue, if they are so inclined.

I do get a kick out of the stoners I know who love his music, because he abstained from drug use (and alcohol) and did not allow his band members to partake, and even once said ""A drug is not bad. A drug is a chemical compound. The problem comes in when people who take drugs treat them like a license to behave like an asshole." If anything, Zappa hated assholes, which reminds me of the many "bikers" I have met over the years who have waved Zappa's Titties & Beer like their own anti-freak flag, which is unbelievably ironic since Zappa is ripping them a new one with it. Likewise, the dirty hippies (not necessarily exclusive from the druggies, and certainly not from the assholes) I have met, who totally seem to have missed the fact that Zappa despised their stance, and spent a lot of early album time mocking them and their inevitable commercialization by the establishment.

There are also those who decry Zappa for being a misogynist, pointing out his rude digs at women in his songs, or as being a racist, as shown in the controversy whipped up over "Jewish Princess". What these reactionaries miss out on is that no one -- men, women, animals, children, his fellow band members, even himself -- is spared in his ruthless assault on our social mores and our casual acceptance of mediocrity, especially in music. If the women come off as vacuous sluts and whores, well, the men who surround them often come off as nothing more than base animals who only think with their dicks. If they aren't thinking with those particular organs, then they are likely corrupt politicians, idiot record company execs or greedy preachers all trying to grind us out of our precious dollars and ruining the overall potential of mankind. Zappa cast a wide net, and no one was allowed to wriggle out -- not even if they could proficiently knock out The Black Page #2 on the drum kit. (Poor little Terry Bozzio...)

Me? I decry Zappa for just not being around anymore. I would love to get his take on the current state of affairs in our government, especially if he had indeed successfully run for office, as it is rumored he was considering to do. Yes, he is still around in some form I suppose: he has around 70 albums in his catalogue, and all of them still in print, and I only have about half of them, so I could easily buy a new Zappa CD each year for the next two decades and still not be near completion of my collection. And in 2003, Baby Snakes, a movie I had never gotten the opportunity to see, made its debut on DVD. My brother Mark had it first, and my premiere viewing was on his computer screen -- by the next weekend, I had my own copy in hand, and devoured its goofy content several times over through the next couple months.

Should you decide to make the journey, be warned: Baby Snakes is a concert film, but it is wholly unconcerned with giving you the full on-stage concert experience, as one might expect when Zappa himself directs the proceedings. Large sections are devoted to backstage foolishness between songs, and sometimes, in the middle of songs. There is also a terrific concentration on Zappa's collaboration with the award-winning animator Bruce Bickford, whose unique and often pornographic claymation sculptures spring to life over Zappa's music and sound collages. We see Bickford not just filming some of this animation, but also discussing his wacked-out philosophies on art and life (of which, I must admit, a little goes a long way).

Zappa's band, as is expected, is extraordinarily tight, but it is the pre-concert moments where you see that Zappa didn't just have a band -- he was truly its conductor. He demanded precision on the part of his players, as any maestro expects of his orchestra, and this pays off in the middle of the show when he actually does conduct the band in a percussive free-for-all which includes his gestural tormenting of erstwhile Zappa companion Roy Estrada, who lends his odd vocalizations to his portrayal of a man who is tormented by his attraction to a sexually aroused gas mask.

Estrada is a freak of the first order, not in the hippie sense, but in the fact that he seems to have stepped out of a circus sideshow. In fact, much of Zappa's entourage seems to have done so -- the film is subtitled: A Movie About People Who Do Stuff That Is Not Normal -- but don't be fooled. These were immensely talented musicians, and Zappa gets everything he can out of them in the course of this film. And, on the way, Zappa brings many of the devoted from out of the audience to do ridiculous things on stage. These engagements are rarely frivolous, even if the stunts are, because Zappa uses these moments to help illustrate whatever point he has to make, even if the connection between statement and action are fairly tenuous at best. It's also interesting to see the genuine affection he has for some of his flock, while he dismisses those who interrupt him with quick flips of the bird and an annoyed "Fuck you, too, buddy!" It seems Zappa doesn't just conduct his band, but feels the need to conduct his followers, as well.

But, if its a power play, its because he wants you to hear what he has to say, and he has much to say indeed, even if much of it is only about "Poodle Play". And in a film that runs two hours and 44 minutes, Zappa will say it, whether you feel like hearing it or not. Myself, I prefer uninterrupted musical performances, but that would be like saying "Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar!" Zappa must be taken "warts 'n all"; he has many facets, and one must see all of them to even begin to understand his art. He doesn't just play guitar; he doesn't just write dirty songs; he doesn't just lead a band. And one of the best places to learn this is in Baby Snakes.

But be further warned: if you are a rubber doll, stay away from Roy Estrada. The boy had some issues...

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