We Are What We Watch

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By Jim Bessman
Billboard, May 1990


"I always believed that there would be a medium called 'home video' even before there was a marketplace for it. I think that it's a mistake to assume that everybody in the U.S. who watches television, likes what they watch. There's a substantial portion of the American public that watches broadcast TV and wishes they were getting a little bit more bang for their buck – or a little bit more content. That's why there is a market for home video, as an alternative to the brainwashing that comes out of the box."

When it comes to home video, has the American public been left with no alternative? Frank Zappa, who's built his career creating alternative entertainment, has the answer.

Zappa's lifelong interest in visual storytelling has grown from his earliest high school dabblings in film to cinematic projects with Captain Beefheart and The Mothers to his full-fledged theatrical movies "200 Motels" and "Baby Snakes."

Zappa's first commercially available videocassette was "Does Humor Belong In Music?," primarily a movie of a 1984 New York concert. The company designated to release the tape, Sony Video Software, decided that the video's content warranted a warning sticker. Needless to say, trying to interest Frank Zappa in a warning sticker is rather like giving a temperance lecture to Charles Bukowski. Into the breach stepped Chicago-based MPI Home Video.

"I felt the same way he did about video programs," says MPI chief Waleed Ali, "For obvious political reasons, the whole idea of stickering original home video product was something that rubbed me the wrong way. We just happened to agree on that and the result was that the license was purchased by us and we put it out." Ali urged Zappa to enter the home video market with MPI as a distributor.

In the first six months of 1987, Zappa toiled at Pacific Video to create what he calls the "video objects" that became the initial Honker Home Video releases. "I think it was the first time an artist developed his own label in home video – unless you want to start calling Jane Fonda's workouts a label," says Ali. "What was interesting about Frank's idea for a label – and we shared it with him – was the idea of really exploiting home video for everything that it stood for, which was the last bastion of the ability to deliver truth and points of view. If you look at his programming or listen to the lyrics of his music, you know there's always an element of that in everything that he does."

Waleed Ali saw Zappa's alternative vision as complementary to the other titles on the MPI roster. "We think of ourselves as programmers of a network that has a following." Ali explains, "And the network delivers news, it delivers history, it delivers classical music programming ... We deliver the kind of programming that an unusual network would – the kind of network that a lot of people would like to tune into. If you look at our catalog you're going to see everything from the biography of Joe Louis to Frank Zappa's Honker Home Video to 'A Hard Day's Night' or 'Help' to an expose on the Iran-Contra Affair."

The Honker Home Video titles currently available include Zappa's music +animation+what-have-you creations "Baby Snakes" and "Video From Hell." ("Does Humor Belong In Music?" predates Honker, but is also available through MPI.) Honker has also unearthed and restored videos of historical interest to the Zappa fan. One such cassette is "The True Story Of 200 Motels," a documentary of the trouble-plagued project featuring the Mothers, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and an unhinged director who threatened to sabotage the whole movie. The long-awaited Zappa feature film "Uncle Meat" has finally been completed and released through Honker. (Although its "soundtrack" was released 20 years before, fans consider it worth the wait.) "The Amazing Mr. Bickford" spotlights Bruce Bickford's wild, nightmarish, Gumby's-acid-flashback clay-and-cartoon animation. Zappa currently plans to release a video documentary of his recent trips to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

"Frank's material is catalog/evergreen programming," says Ali of Honker's marketability, "Almost everything he injected into this label was programming that would sell well years after its initial release. For example, 'Baby Snakes' still sells well now. It sells consistently. You're not going to achieve the same levels of success financially as say, 'Rain Man' would, but there's a business sense to the kind of programming that he injected into the marketplace and it consistently performs. From a business standpoint it was a good move. Frank has rarely come up with an idea that was not commercially feasible."

Despite home video's expansive possibilities, Frank Zappa feels it has a narrow reputation. "The home video business has basically been converted into the place where you dump films that didn't make enough money on the big screen," says Zappa, "And the pressure's been put on the retailers to stock, basically, films. Which is a mistake, because there's plenty of other stuff that's available on video that's worth watching that's not just a movie."

Zappa also feels that home video may become narrower still, due to the actions of a label-happy minority. "Well, Tipper and the girls started squalling about rock videos in '85," he notes, "but by '86 they were mounting a campaign to have a rating system for all video, not just rock video."

Zappa is unmoved by the argument that a home video rating system would be similar to the MPAA ratings already found on videocassette boxes. "The basic question that has to be asked at all times is: Is the rating necessary?" he demands. "Do we really need this kind of protection? And who's qualified to make the judgement as to which category the object falls into? That's just giving up too much of your personal choice and your personal freedom as far as I'm concerned. I like the idea of deciding for myself what's what."

MPI's Waleed Ali concurs: "The unfortunate thing is that you have people in our industry who are actually not even batting an eye to these subtle movements that are going on to encroach freedom of expression in home video. You've got actual pressure at the local and at the federal level to limit – there's really an attempt in my opinion – to limit the kind of programming that should be allowed to go into the home video marketplace... Freedom of expression is something that is not, or should not automatically be taken for granted. Freedom of expression is something that you always have to maintain a vigil over. I agree with Frank,"