Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words: The Central Scrutinizer, by David Bax
In the interest of full disclosure, let me start by saying that I am not a Frank Zappa fan. I don’t just mean that I’m indifferent; I have actively disliked his music and persona ever since I became aware enough of him to have an opinion (in tenth grade or so). I hate the way his deliberately unpleasant songs seem to be daring you to try to enjoy them and I hate the way, in interviews, he would always hold a self-satisfied stare for a few beats after saying something he thought was incisive. But, as Roger Ebert told us, movies are machines that generate empathy. With this in mind, I embarked on Thorsten Schütte’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words hoping to leave with, if not an appreciation of the man’s work, at least a better understanding of it. And in many ways (but not all), that’s exactly what happened.
Eat That Question contains no voiceover and no new footage. Instead, like the superior Tupac: Resurrection, it consists entirely of existing clips varying from talk shows to music videos to concert footage to many, many interviews, both from those who are confused by him as a young artist to those in the later years whose obvious fandom Zappa seems to enjoy antagonizing.
While I may not be an acolyte of Zappa, Schütte certainly appears to be. The film is cut to the rhythm of its subject’s laugh lines, both sung and spoken, always giving him the last word and undercutting any other onscreen figure who attempts to mount a serious criticism. When one interviewer accuses him of being part of the “hippie establishment,” Zappa sarcastically replies, “Or worse.” The line gets a laugh but does nothing to illuminate his place in the broader counterculture. Despite this, however, Schütte’s meticulous organization of information does allow a picture of a man to emerge, little by little.
Schütte assembles Eat That Question into a survey of Zappa’s views on various subjects. From politics to drugs to sex and more, the film is arranged by topic. Yet, curiously, it’s also arranged chronologically. As a result, we never see an opinion changed by the decades, giving us an impression of the man as an ideologically static figure. That’s not a weakness though. In fact, it’s part of what makes Zappa so irritatingly fascinating. That’s without even mentioning his ideas themselves. He was militant in his belief in the purity of art and its absolute opposition to commerce. Yet he was also an anti-union conservative even though he despised Ronald Reagan and was generally against religion of any kind. He will rightfully be best remembered, though, for the stand he took in the 1980s against warning labels for records. This makes up the most compelling part of both his career and the movie, with scene after scene of Zappa passionately defending against any hint of censorship with extemporaneous speeches that are as eloquent as they are deadly to his opposition’s arguments. If nothing else, Eat That Question can stand as a testimony to Zappa’s reputation as a hero for free speech.
Of course, that makes it all the more frustrating when Zappa uses his own freedom of speech to say things that are sexist (about the function of groupies to “sacrifice their bodies” to him or his wife’s child-rearing and shopping duties) or homophobic (describing New Wave music as “queer”). He also insists that the United States has no folk culture of its own, which is not only willfully ignorant but could also be seen as a dismissal of most of the history of black America.
Despite Schütte’s presentation of Zappa as a man defined by his social and political beliefs, the film actually finds him at his most endearing when it’s just about his artistic pursuits. In addition to his rock career, he wrote classical music and would often describe himself as a composer in both fields. He geeks about the technology he used to record his (admittedly pretty terrific) instrumental album Jazz from Hell or the video-to-film conversion of 200 Motels. Eat That Question may have failed to turn me into a Frank Zappa fan but it did manage to generate the empathy that is its purpose.