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Monday 8 December 2008

The World's Greatest Sinner (1962)

I think it was Stanley Kubrick's The Killing when I noticed Timothy Carey. I think everyone who explores cinema notices him at some point or another and that just happened to be my point. You'll have seen him before: he's the actor you looked at in black and white films and said, 'Hey, that guy looks just like Nicolas Cage!' Well he has a lot more talent than Nicolas Cage and he's a lot more interesting. He was notable in both The Killing and Paths of Glory for Kubrick, but then I started seeing him in odd stuff: beach movies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello; the Monkees' movie, Head; part of Lee Marvin's gang in The Wild One; John Cassavetes indies like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. He certainly got around.

But at the end of the day, this is the most Timothy Carey film there is, because he isn't just an actor in it: he's the lead actor, the writer, the producer, the director, the distributor and probably every other function to boot, all the way down to financing the thing with whatever money he could raise (it cost him $100,000 in the end). It's completely his vision, and given that he was notoriousy eccentric, it's hardly surprising to find that it's a mightily eccentric vision.

Carey plays an insurance salesman called Clarence Hilliard but he comes to the realisation that he's bored and disheartened by the whole thing and wants something more. He wants to make something of himself and he wants to put something back into life. All understandable thus far, but how to do it? 'Why can't I be a God?' he asks himself so he goes about it by founding a political party/religion called the Eternal Man's party, renaming himself God Hilliard and telling everyone that he can make them superhuman beings who can live forever. And then he runs for president.

It's a bold film, make no mistake about it, focused on nothing smaller than the relationship between man and God, without holding back in any way. Blasphemous, sacrilegious and blatant, the approach and the intent reminds of films like What Is It?, Crispin Glover's attempt to shock us into thought. Yet even while Glover had to overcome many obstacles to make his film, he had it easy compared to Carey, whose film is fundamentally hindered by aims much higher than the budget could allow. He is at least imaginative about how to add in stock footage and other tricks to make it appear more expensive than it was. However there are other hindrances beyond money and the inevitability of it being rough around the edges.

Most of the actors (read: what seems like everyone except Carey) appear to be amateurs and many are very amateur indeed. The editing is terrible with lots of abruptness between scenes or even during them. There obviously weren't many opportunities for retakes: you can tell that by the number of scenes that have flies landing inconveniently on people's foreheads. Most of all, the film took four years to shoot, with filming taking place sporadically between 1958 and 1961 whenever funds were available. This leaves actors, not least Carey himself, varying in appearance as time goes on. At points he appears to be stoned out of his brain with his eyeballs unable even to focus. The fact that he even finished the film is impressive. Then again, how he plays his character is up for debate. I think his intent was to be deliberately ridiculous as God Hilliard but in situations that aren't, so that we would look at similar situations in real life and see the ridiculous in people trying very hard not to be.

And it does stand out as a statement. Totally independent at a time when it wasn't easy to to make an independent film and never released commercially, its reputation hasn't faded in over forty years. People paid attention to it, to the degree that Elvis even asked Carey for a copy which he naturally declined, being the awkward so and so that he was. This film is ambitious and powerful and it prompts us to ask a lot of questions, and for those reasons it's a success. As a technical piece, it's a dismal failure. As a piece of art, it's fascinating, but it sure isn't for everyone. It screams independent, cult, fringe, whatever description you want to tag it with to put a brave face on the fact that most people wouldn't even be able to make it through the film.

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