In Search of the “Weird”
I’ve often bemoaned about how I got hooked on the “strange” side of the cinematic street when I was just a babe.
The obvious consequence is that I didn’t see much of the classics, spent time and money chasing after “holy grails,” and landed in my thirties without tasting the “good stuff.” I wanted “strange,” “bizarre,” ‘disconcerting,” and whatever adjective you blurt out. There was at least one thing I never contemplated: What happens when you get worn out? What happens when “the strangest movie you will ever see” doesn’t cut it?
I didn’t stop to contemplate that until recently. The last couple of days or so, in fact, when I finally polished off Timothy Carey’s The World’s Greatest Sinner. The watching of this movie had been one of my dire cinematic needs for years. The occasion had finally arrived to (legally, of course) to watch this film.
What happened? I felt absolutely nothing; but I’m not going to get there quite yet.
Here’s a bit of a template for this entry:
- · We are first going to take a stop in “Tiny Town.” (Those of us familiar with “bad movie” legends will know what I am talking about. If you don’t, stick around and all will be revealed.)
- · We will get to my nagging problems with Mr. Carey’s magnum opus.
- · I will tie everything up with a common thread.
What? That doesn’t sound thrilling enough for you. Nuts to you, then!
The Train to “Tiny Town” Only Leads One Way
The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) is a legendary film in its own right. I would say that it is so legendary that many more movie geeks have heard of it than actually witnessed the oater.
For the uninitiated: This is a B-movie western that features an entire cast of little people in standard roles. You have The Hero, the Girl, and the Townspeople all accounted for but with a basic size difference. I am treading on dangerous ground, but the only “surreal” quality this movie has is its “all midget cast.” (I use the quotation marks because that is what the movie calls its cast members. That is the gimmick that is a bit left over from the days of the sideshows).
I can’t even remember how or why I heard of this movie…but of course my interest would be peaked. The movie was largely unavailable until falling into the public domain in the past few years. (You can go to Youtube find it right away. You are probably doing that right now. Goodbye).
I finally had the opportunity to watch it recently. What did I discover?
It’s excruciatingly boring. I mean deeply, painfully dull in the sense that the hour running time feels like it is about twice that. (I kept taking breaks for coffee and frozen pancakes).
This is nothing remotely “strange” about the film, other than the aforementioned little people. That’s the thing, though, quantifying the actors as just being “little people” doesn’t do them justice. The movie reveals a boatload of capable, talented performers that were most likely just happy to have the work. The lead little person, Billy Curtis, has a very distinctive screen presence and genuine talent. He went on to work with both Alfred Hitchcock and Clint Eastwood. (Remember the little guy from High Plains Drifter?)
What about the “weird” factor? I didn’t see it as being there so much. The shock of the new wears off in about a minute and a half; what is left after that is a relatively average movie. There is nothing distinctive about the script or the direction. I can at least give it points for using differently bodied actors and not being (too) exploitative. I just can’t call it all that satisfyingly trippy.
This is my first case of failing to find “the weird.”
Is It Strange Or Does it Just Suck?
I had heard of The World’s Greatest Sinner long before I ever had a chance to see it. This was another case of the shadow of “the weird” being cast over a relatively obscure movie. Remember the old trick a lot of gas stations/souvenir shops use? “Five more miles until THE BLACK HOLE…etc.” You can very easily drive by and then end up wondering: “What the hell was THE BLACK HOLE?”
I had seen one solitary film clip with Timothy Carey doing a weird dance backed by a cheap garage band. This would be a perfect Youtube highlight clip, but this was the days before the existence of such a site. This was enough to hook my interest and fire up the needed synapses for a memory.
I knew that Frank Zappa scored the flick; which doesn’t do much for me because I’m not a fan. (Let the hate mail hit the fan. I tried, and I just can’t do it.) I didn’t know who Timothy Carey was, but time took care of that.
I will include a bit for the uninitiated (as I did for “Tiny Town.”) Timothy Carey was perhaps one of the oddest and most distinctive talents that ever graced the screen. I would hesitate to call what he did “acting.” This was more a case of channeling a deep eccentricity and making it case specific. Remember the maniac from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing who has to shoot the horse?
That was Timothy Carey, and he was making The World’s Greatest Sinner in between acting gigs.
The internet strange-o who posted the video I watched all those years ago was not the film’s only fan. John Cassavetes somehow saw this movie and ended up casting Carey in all of his later films. Martin Scorsese has said it is “one of the best Rock and Roll movies ever made.” (Really, what does that even mean, Marty?) I even had a Facebook friend who said this was the “weirdest movie” he had even seen in his life.
This movie has an established and rabid cult, and I am about to enrage them.
There are two central things that The World’s Greatest Sinner really has going for it.
- · Timothy Carey’s premise is a very intriguing one. A common insurance salesman attempts to start his own religion in which man is supreme. He drops his given name of Clarence and starts going by “God.” His medium for reaching the kids becomes the holy world of Rock and Roll. (Hence the strange dance that I spoke of at the top of this piece). All the while, the Devil is tracking his progress and waiting to snatch his soul. (At least, I believe that is what happens anyway). Carey’s point seems to be that no man can ever believe himself to be a deity. That sort of egotism leads to both interpersonal chaos and the crumbling of any establishment that is established. (That’s not a bad sentence, kids. That’s word play!) This is actually a very classical structured idea.
- · The Carey performance is completely uninhibited and “crazy.” As Carey’s character continually buys into his power, he grows increasingly unhinged. There is nothing the man won’t do in front of a camera…and that at least pays some dividends. (I would especially point to his make out scene with a woman who has to be at least eighty. She has agreed to be his first follower, and weirdness follows.)
Okay, I talked about what I liked. So what’s the problem?
It’s excruciatingly boring. We are talking about something that is just a little over seventy minutes long. Every one of those minutes feels like a slow poke in the eye.
Timothy Carey’s performance, inherent strangeness, and smart satirical sense are at the service of a bad film. The “weird” is sacrificed to some truly inept filmmaking. The other actors have no sense of how to play off Carey. The dialogue is painfully on the nose (and would fit in well with a typical high school play). The editing is clunky and scenes never begin or end.
Perhaps the tackiest offence is the lighting. I know that sounds like a minor complaint. However, it becomes a serious concern when you can’t see anything that is going on.
This is both a home movie and a vanity project.
Carey might have gotten a crack acting reel from the experience. Did he really push any cinematic envelopes? Sadly, not from my perspective. I just see a half-baked, mediocre end product that has curiosity value.
Look, I am Wiling to Play Devil’s Advocate with Myself Here
I had a moment during my long slog through “Tiny Town” when I really started to question myself.
Maybe this is the “weirdest movie” ever made, but I just can’t see it. I have spent hours of my life subjecting myself to garbage. I can’t recognize that elusive “weird” anymore. “Weird” has become my “normal,” and there’s no going back.
But that can’t be, can it?
That, my friends, is a rhetorical question that is meant to keep you hanging. That is what happens when I can’t come up with a more conclusive final thought.