Sunday, November 9, 2008

"I'm not a preacher and I'm not drunk. I'm a politician."

In 1962, character actor Timothy Carey released his labor of love, The World’s Greatest Sinner, which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. It took Carey four years to bring his vision to life, creating a bizarre, blasphemous, surreal cult masterpiece.

The World’s Greatest Sinner is about an insurance salesman named Clarence Hilliard (Carey), who decides one day that he is completely unfulfilled with his life. He quits his job to form a new political party, proclaiming that the only true God is man. He runs for president on a platform of promising entire life to all of his followers, deeming them “super-beings.” Along the way he starts a rock band, renames himself “God Hilliard,” and manages to incur the full wrath of God.

Think that sounds strange? That doesn’t even begin to describe the bizarre craziness that is The World’s Greatest Sinner.

The movie starts with Clarence Hilliard sitting at his desk at his insurance salesman job. After giving the entire office the day off for no reason, he takes a call from a woman looking to buy some life insurance. He convinces her that life insurance isn’t worth buying since “once you die, your body starts smelling pretty bad. They’ll just bury you for free eventually.” Shortly after this exchange, Clarence’s boss fires him.

Upon his return home, Clarence explains to his wife and daughter that he’s going to write a book. He’s going to change the world. Then he’s going to write another book. He’s going to run for president. He continues to plot out how he’s going to change the world in a manic craze, roping his more than willing gardener into his plan.

That night he goes to a teen dance club, where he witnesses the awesome power that rock’n’roll has over the teenie boppers. He returns that night, declaring that rock’n’roll is the perfect way for him to spread his gospel and gather followers. He and his gardener set out the next day, guitar in hand, to begin preaching on street corners and in vacant lots. Slowly but surely, his message of the supreme power of man, his promise of eternal life, and his unassailable enthusiasm begins winning over more and more followers.

Soon he starts a full rock’n’roll band, touring the country, holding crazed and unruly rock concerts that double as political rallies. As he continues to preach his message, Clarence begins to refer to himself as “God Hilliard,” declaring himself and his followers the only true gods. As his movement continues to gain members and momentum, God Hilliard becomes increasing manic, believing himself to be a true god. He starts seducing all women he comes in contact with, including the elderly and the underage. God even forces a follower who expressed doubt to commit suicide, proclaiming the follower’s doubt a symptom of his weakness, rendering him unfit for the power God would have given him.

God’s “political party” increasingly becomes a cult of personality, taking on tones of fascism as a mysterious, bispectacled campaign manager appears, blatantly feeding God’s delusions. Eventually God Hilliard begins openly challenging the Christian God, daring Him to prove His existence. Ultimately, this leads to a climatic confrontation in which God Hilliard teeters between repentance and full-blown megalomania.

I can honestly say that The World’s Greatest Sinner is one of the most bizarre movies I have ever seen. The premise is strange enough, but as a self-financed, independently filmed movie, shot over a number of years, the movie is imbued a number of surreal qualities. The editing is so bizarre that a scene will change seemingly before the previous scene has had a chance to end. Scenes are edited together in ways that make it difficult for the viewer to understand what is going on spatially (the poor film stock and lighting doesn’t help either). The dialogue is confusing and hard to follow. While all of this may make the film seem amateurish, it also lends it a nightmarish fever-dream quality. You vaguely know what’s going on, but you can’t really nail down specifics, be it what the characters are discussing, where the characters are, or how you got from scene A to scene B.

The movie appears to have been filmed in sequence, as some of these editing and lighting problems lessen as time goes on, suggesting they were figuring out the basics of filmmaking as they went along. As God Hilliard and his movement fly more and more off the rails, the viewing experience gets progressively more accessible. Though it never really obtains a level of normal competence, which is actually a good thing. As straightforward as the filmmaking gets, it maintains its difficult and surreal style throughout.

While The World’s Greatest Sinner takes on serious issues like religion, politics, media manipulation, and the corrupting natural of power, I do want to make it clear that the film is flat-out entertaining throughout. Be it the very strange and strangely powerful musical performances (pre-Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa wrote all the music) or moments of truly laugh out loud humor (a discussion Clarence has with his gardener about whether or not he should grow a goatee to look more like a real leader is fantastic – he compromises and starts wearing a glued on goatee), the movie is thoroughly enjoyable.

I would highly recommend tracking it down if you have any interest in bizarre cult movies, and have a high tolerance for borderline incompetent filmmaking. It is truly a mesmerizing, surreal, hilarious, and confusing viewing experience.

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