Sunday, October 26, 2008

Psycho Cinema -- The World's Greatest Sinner

Thank you TCM for showing Timothy Carey's The World's Greatest Sinner on Friday, October 24th: I've been hearing about it for years and I can now report that it more than lives up to its reputation.

To put not too fine a point on it, WGS is bughouse crazy, and I mean that in the best possible way. From Carey's deranged performance as an insurance salesman turned rockabilly idol turned presidential candidate to Frank Zappa's music. Yes, the Frank "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" Zappa, three years before his debbut album

Carey had a solid career as a character actor -- directors like Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes loved him. He was Method to the nth degree, had a knack for getting himself fired for acting like a freak and regularly made Dennis Hopper look like a model of restraint and modest decorum.

WGS, released (if that's the word) in 1962, was Carey's intensely personal statement about religion, politics and rock 'n' roll, and while I can't say it's good in any conventional sense of the word, it's astonishing. Carey plays Clarence Hilliard, a happily married father of two with a suburban house, a horse, a dog and a cheerful Mexican gardener named Alonzo.

In the throes of a midlife crisis, Hilliard quits his job selling insurance, renames himself God and starts spreading his own religion -- whose core tenet is that there is no God but man -- through rockabilly concerts.

And it just gets nuttier.

WGS's ultra-low budget is apparent, but Carey's performance as a pop messiah is mesmerizing, albeit in a road wreck kind of way. And he's on to something, no two ways about it: Today it's a given that politics, entertainment and shadowy special-interest groups are hopelessly intertwined, but WGS was made at the height of the Kennedy Camelot era. Whatever it's limitations, Carey's film was seriously ahead of its time.

I recommend seeing it on a double bill with Peter Watkins' equally cynical and more technically polished Privilege (1967), which New Yorker Films just put out on DVD a couple of months ago.

Plus ca change, as the French like to say.

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