Mad scientists

Every artform, and every genre within a given artform, needs its Frank Zappa.

Some artists are prolific—some years heralded three new Zappa albums by the guitarist/composer. Some artists revel in changing genres, tones, and styles with each new record, or even with each song on a given record; Ry Cooder is another guitarist/songwriter who delights in confounding his audience’s expectations. Some artists are perversely experimental, chasing the avant-garde while rooted in an ultimately popular artform. Many, many artists skirt over the edge of good taste in their humor and satirical intent. A number of great artists approach art and life from essentially comic standpoints.

But few artists share all of these traits, which is why Zappa is special. He willingly pushed boundaries—of form, content, and sense—and stretched rock music to its breaking point, and often beyond it. In the process, he made a sackful of truly transcendent songs, several decent-to-excellent albums, and a whole lot of crap. He influenced the good (Phish), the bad (Primus), and the ugly (Faith No More) in equal measures. In all, he piled up so much stuff in such a short time—he was dead before age 53—that, unless you’re a true believer, you’re sure to be daunted when facing his output for the first (or second, or 59th) time.

Hip-hop’s Zappas are Dan the Automator and Timbaland, two mad scientists who (especially in the 1990s) seemed to be ubiquitous, churning their madness into beats and tracks for countless rappers and singers, and under a variety of names. Madlib has taken their mantle, producing instrumental stuff as well as beats for his rhyme-spitting alter egos (yes, he has several). Literature has Stephen Dixon, Joyce Carol Oates, William T. Vollmann, and even a children’s book Zappa in the eccentric, snappy, and streetwise Daniel Pinkwater—he’s published over 80 books: novels, picture books, essay collections, and even a dog-training manual. In comics, there’s Lewis Trondheim and the always-in-motion Gilbert Hernandez.

Film has Japan’s Takashi Miike—three or four movies a year, and there’s no telling in what genre he’ll be working in from film to film (or even scene to scene), but he’s always working at the extremes of cinema. Before Miike, we had the late erratic genius Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In an essay accompanying the Criterion Collection’s box set of Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy, Kent Jones elaborates on why the Zappa aesthetic is important for art:

Fassbinder’s nonstop work ethic also allowed him to break through the God’s-eye view that comes all too often with the territory of modern cinema. He’s always right there with his characters, in time, space, and spirit. “Should you sit around waiting until something’s become a tradition,” he once said, “or shouldn’t you rather roll up your sleeves and get to work developing one?” Too much time spent listening to the music of your own voice gives rise to a temptation to round everything off into a definitive statement, it gives you a false sense of confidence that you’re delivering the last word on human affairs. By building his [metaphorical] house [of films], Fassbinder was essentially trying to create a whole body of German films that would stand politically and spiritually against the flood of hypocritical, unfelt cinema that had come before and that was sure to come after. He tried to bypass hazy generalities and windy formulations through sheer speed and determination, and largely succeeded. “There’s a sense of process in Fassbinder, a feeling of the movie as it’s being made,” said critic Manny Farber, an early champion. That sense of process, of the movie and the man behind it thinking and reacting as he went along, was there right to the end, even in the fancier and more vaunted later works such as Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Despair (1977).

The Zappas of art aren’t afraid to show us the process, the grimy gears beneath the shiny surfaces of art, nor are they afraid to try out radical ideas and unconventional, often untested structures in public. They make bellyflops. In their ambitious hands, though, we learn about the physics of flesh hitting water, and wave patterns, and pain. They’re fascinated by the corporeal. This isn’t to say that they’re against Grand Ideas but, as William Carlos Williams, their collective creed is, “No ideas but in things.”

And so they make lots of things, and allow us to see them making them (or failing to do so properly), and they almost always take on more things than they can chew.

Andrew Horbal, in a new manifesto, invokes Manny Farber when talking about criticism:

These are new times, and they call for a new criticism; I believe that we are entering the age of the “termite critic.” It is no longer necessary, desirable, or even possible for film critics to be “movie experts,” to be King of the Mountain, Arbiter of Good Taste. Instead, the critics of tomorrow will devote themselves to some small part of the Cinema and nibble away at it until sated, at which point they will move onto another.


Perhaps most importantly, termite critics actually live and write from within the Cinema itself. They don’t merely tell, they show; film is a visual art, and theirs is a visual criticism. They are critics and cinephiles, but they are also artists, filmmakers. Their criticism is always an act of creation, never destruction.

Zappas are almost always termites, burrowing deep within their chosen artforms. “Art about art” is a worthwhile pursuit for them, in part because they understand that the process of making art—in short, the stylization of human experience—is a worthy endeavor to track, and that diagnosing this process can reveal a lot about how we think of ourselves. Given this, it’s not surprising that these artists are critics of a sort, creating art that comments on art. (Zappa himself always has that arched eyebrow in photos, at once critical and self-critical.) These rare folks tend to be critics and satirists of society and artistic conventions. They’re funny, but ironically so.

Even when attempting to encompass the whole world in a single work of art, and then trying it again from a radically different angle within six months of the first effort, the Zappas are comic. They see the futility of trying to take it all in at once, but do it anyway. They’re prolific and protean because they understand that a single lens only gives us one view of the world, but a multiplicity of viewpoints might show us the full spectrum of life. So every style, genre, and character is fair game. But they’re auteurs through and through. No one would mistake Zappa’s vision of the world, or Fassbinder’s or Trondheim’s or Frank Gehry’s (he’s so prolific that his architecture has become a brand), for anyone else’s. In most cases, these mad scientists—always a little sloppy and rarely perfect, like termites—are funny. They have to either laugh at their constant, doomed-to-failure attempts to drink in the world… or go crazy.

That’s the upside of these prolific, erratic, genius-and-garbage Zappas, and why I’ll continue to be drawn to Robert Altman and Spike Lee over, say, Stanley Kubrick. (In his politically-minded consciousness, his sloppy mash-ups, speed of production, visual experiments, and willingness to grapple with the uncomfortable here-and-now, Lee is Fassbinder’s true successor.) Jazzy, sometimes improvised, here’s-life-as-it’s-lived art will almost always trump grand visions and summings-up in my book. They burrow at art, and life, from within, giving more heed to the splendid variety of the world than to their reputations. To put it bluntly, they’re willing to make fools of themselves (and often) for their art and for further understanding the world. These folks don’t make immaculate marble coliseums, but rather malleable, transitory sandcastles.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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3 Responses to Mad scientists

  1. Kubrick was by no means prolific, but he certainly reveled in changing genres, tones, and styles with each new film, confounded his audience’s expectations, was perversely avant-garde in a popular form (the entire ending of 2001), skirted the edge of taste in his humor and satirical intent, and approached art and life from an essentially comic (or at least, wry) standpoint, didn’t he?
    Though of course his comedy stems from his gods-eye view of everything. Great post.

  2. Walter says:

    Hi David. You’re right about Kubrick, though I will say that I don’t think his cold, detached tone (either with regard to the performances of his actors or his camerawork and compositions) varied much after 2001.

  3. LMc says:

    Hi Walter, yet another Zappa factoid is that, back in the day, he made radio commercials that were seriously anti-drugs – really! I can still hear one of the spots starting out “Hi guy, wanna die?…” And this was when it was very not-cool to stay away from drugs…. He was somethin’

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