According to Frank Zappa, being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things anyone could ever experience. In much of Eat That Question—Frank Zappa in His Own Words’s rare archival interviews, the camera is tightly framed around the musician’s face. Those hardened, almost stern brown eyes are sometimes softer depending on the footage. Despite Zappa’s scruffy countenance, his eyes are often soulful and warm. At times they show what might be a flimsy cover for insecurity or mistrust faced with interviewers and cameras.
Zappa mentions that he is ‘ugly’ (thus perhaps one of the reasons people still think of him as a dirty hippie).
He was not ugly.
Staring into those eyes for the duration of Thorsten Schütte’s film, there was in fact, something very beautiful about him. He wasn’t a drunken rock star. He was a thinker, and sometimes his eyes betrayed his veil of trying to not give a damn. To the untrained eye, Frank Zappa still remains the stoned, dirty hippie long after his untimely passing in 1993 from prostate cancer. With a clearer understanding of who the man was, he was neither stoned nor necessarily dirty, unless one counts so-called swear words. In Schütte‘s film, Zappa explains that no words in the human language are truly dirty. They each play a role in expressing one’s thoughts and emotions. Sometimes the F-word is more effective than flowery adjectives or adverbs. And they roll off Zappa’s tongue with ease throughout the film.
Eat That Question is a quasi-rockumentary. It not only documents rock n’ roll, but also classical orchestration. It is an interesting look at how not stoned Zappa really was. He had a vision of what he wanted to do. Even what may have appeared as disjointed improv sessions were orchestrated and rehearsed. Zappa was a brilliant man, and his weirdness came from within rather than from any chemical additive. Instead of calling him a visionary, the film refers to his farsightedness. Love it or hate it, what the musician created was a legacy of innovation. It’s undeniable that he was doing something nobody else was at the time. Even modern experimenters haven’t come close to taking over where Zappa left off.
The anti-musicmaker called himself an entertainer. He started as a drummer, playing pots and pans, and became a classical composer before he was ever a rock and R&B legend. In Eat That Question, a young Zappa appears on TV as a clean cut, almost square fellow. Similar to many musicians, he was a nerd with quirky ideas. He demonstrated his bicycle concerto, to mixed reactions (mostly laughter). Playing bike spokes with a violin bow, Zappa encouraged the soundboard technicians and his musicians to create random noises on their own whim. The result was a noisy mess, but it held validity as a study in dissonance and unpredictable soundscapes.
The conclusion of the film uses footage of an aging but still kickin’ Zappa. He had by this time returned to his classical roots, and collaborated with Kent Nagano and the OSM. Mellowed quite a bit, his wild hair was now pulled back in a greying ponytail. The film doesn’t let on right away that there’s a reason for things toning down. Eventually, it’s revealed that Zappa is sick. Very sick. Even his don’t-care attitude can’t mask what his eyes reveal. He’s not handling his illness well. The contrast of seeing someone go from attitudinal through the whole film, to suddenly reserved and barely holding in his own pain, is almost jarring. The revelatory moment pulls a bit on the heartstrings. However, rather than ending on a sad note, the film closes with a one-shot of Zappa conducting an off-camera orchestra. He keeps his eyes shut the entire time, and it almost feels like Schütte’s way of implying that the artist is still with us, conducting bizarre symphonies until eternity.
Eat That Question—Frank Zappa in His Own Words screens at Cinéma du Parc, July 8th to 14th.