I was interested in the nature of the book, which is actually about failure. And very few things in America seem to me to be about failure, because it’s a society geared to success, and failure is not only kind of frowned upon, it’s sort of actually despised.
– Terence Davies1
I first saw Terence Davies’ The Neon Bible when it was released in Australian cinemas to a tepid critical and audience reception in late 1995. I had been astounded by Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) in the late 1980s, and regarded The Long Day Closes (1992) as a less emotionally engaging, hermetic, but still worthy successor when it followed several years later. The Neon Bible was a more difficult, skeletal and less immediately recognisable or approachable object, but one that nevertheless resonated closely with many of the themes, feelings and preoccupations familiar from Davies’ earlier works. It drew once again on the wellsprings of a troubled family; the physical, moral, existential and spiritual dangers of patriarchy and religion; the compensations of popular culture; the pungent materiality of a particular time and place; the nurturing warmth and partial protection offered by female relations; and a highly theatrical but truly cinematic style that foregrounded space, place, the flow and ruptures of memory as well as the texture of things. Davies also redeployed many of his key collaborators from The Long Day Closes: cinematographer Michael Coulter, production designer Christopher Hobbs, costumer designer Monica Howe, music director Robert Lockhart and producer Olivia Stewart (who, along with Elizabeth Karlsen, brought the project to Davies). My initial response to the film was guarded, blindsided by its curious combination of artifice and realism, outward emotion and expressive impassivity, movement and stasis, inside and outside. At the time, I regarded The Neon Bible as something of a failure or misstep, but now see it as an important lynchpin in Davies’ career and a mysterious and sometimes beautiful object in its own right. Lacking the intensity and clarity of Distant Voices, Still Lives and positioned some distance from the forensically rendered tragedy of the magisterial The House of Mirth (2000) that was to follow, it nakedly reveals Davies’ capabilities, qualities and limitations as a filmmaker.
The Neon Bible is the first of Davies’ films to draw on source material independent of his direct experience, to be filmed outside of England (in Atlanta, Madison and Crawfordville in Georgia), to deploy a highly self-conscious use of the wide, sometimes compartmentalised CinemaScope frame, to foreground a more expressive and fully-rounded mode of performance, and to develop an expanded tonal palette. But although it represents some important firsts and refinements in Davies’ cinema – qualities he would further expand upon over the next 20 or so years across films such as The House of Mirth and A Quiet Passion (2016) – it is also a rumination on the tactile, Proustian, eruptive and piecemeal nature of memory and experience, elements that define his early work.
Like its predecessors, The Neon Bible appears to offer us a “coming of age” or “rites of passage” narrative, but provides little of the connective tissue that routinely allows audiences watching stories like these to piece together and identify things such as character motivation, psychology and development. These “life lessons” are a less causal and more mysterious and mercurial thing in Davies’ work. Adapting a very early but posthumously published short novel by John Kennedy Toole of A Confederacy of Dunces fame, Davies’ film respects, dissects and draws upon the novel while transforming it into a much less prosaic, predictable and approachable work of art. But it is still easy to see what drew Davies to the novel and to identify their shared affinities. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested, Toole and Davies are “both masters of set pieces who have trouble getting from one to the next […] stasis rather than narrative development is basic to what both artists can do best.”2 Although Toole’s novel is long on description and often rather flat in its rendering of dialogue, Davies’ adaptation is much more pared back, dreamlike, in the moment and, at times, magical. It draws heavily on a set symbols, contrasts and images redolent of silent cinema and the hybrid expressionist, realist and folkloric dimensions characteristic of The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955). But I also don’t want to overclaim the achievements of The Neon Bible. As Davies himself has stated,3 it is categorically a transitional work that prefigures a move from the more limited, isolated, spatially becalmed and explicitly personal earlier films to the more expansive, often female-centred adaptations that define the last 20 years of his career. As such, the film contains a number of expertly rendered set pieces such as the revival meeting, rich motifs like trains, doorways and windows that highlight the always evident “frame”, and brilliant combinations of image and sound, but it also strikes false notes in some of its deadening dramatic moments, in aspects of performance and in the archly self-conscious components of some of its compositions.
What stayed with me from my first viewing were particular gestures; the use of a song; the sense of an absent, darkened world beyond the frame; the long dissolves that fuse together and congregate actions and emotions over time; the Méliès-like moon and stars that seem to hang just outside the home; the audacious track into a white sheet as “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) is raised on the soundtrack; and Gena Rowlands’ wonderfully physical and deeply human performance as the flawed Aunt Mae. This has now been joined by a more holistic appreciation of the film’s achievement. But it is the film’s impressionistic, piecemeal and elementary qualities that stay with you.
The Neon Bible opens with a series of bold, skeletal and depopulated images and sounds of a train’s wheels, steam, an adolescent sitting virtually expressionless behind a window, a conductor coming through the carriage switching off the lights, and a combination of flat voiceover and inviting popular song on the soundtrack. This opening fugue of image, light, movement, artifice, music and atmospheric sound communicates a complex sense of calm, quiet, experience, memory, time and isolation. It is matched in the film’s final moments by a pair of images that finally show us the world outside the narrow small town that has corralled our experience. As the train is at last shown within the landscape – its vaporous trail of smoke leading us towards the wide outdoors, to nature within and beyond human activity – a fugue of insect and bird sounds begins to percolate. At its best, The Neon Bible creates a cluster of images and sounds that give back to us the texture or taste of a particular place, time and experience.
But Davies does not overburden or cram his vision of mid-century America with an overly dense or self-conscious catalogue of the popular culture of the past, despite his predilection for inserting snatches of song, orchestral music, film sound, radio broadcasts and other artefacts into his films. Almost all of the references that are included – which run the gamut from several songs made famous by Glenn Miller, Gang Busters, Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio and Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance” (sung evocatively, if appropriately imperfectly, by Mae), to a beautiful version of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”, Gone with the Wind (which is also evoked in Toole’s novel) and the soundtrack of Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), heard during the film’s only visit to the cinema – are both typical of Davies’ work and sensibility and properly embedded in the life and world of his characters. It doesn’t always gel, and specific sections of the film do feel stilted and out of place, but The Neon Bible provides a fascinating insight into the development of Davies’ career and grants us some of the most indelible images and sounds – and their expressive combination – to be found in his cinema.
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The Neon Bible (1995 United Kingdom/Spain 91 mins)
Prod. Co: Channel Four Films, Scala Productions Prod: Elizabeth Karlsen, Olivia Stewart Dir: Terence Davies Scr: Terence Davies Phot: Michael Coulter Ed: Charles Rees Prod. Des: Christopher Hobbs Mus. Dir: Robert Lockhart
Cast: Jacob Tierney, Drake Bell, Gena Rowlands, Diana Scarwid, Denis Leary, Bob Hannah
- Davies quoted in John D. Thomas, “On Location: Amid the Kudzu”, The Village Voice 39.30, 26 July 1994, p. 54. ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008, p. 394. ↩
- Graham Fuller, “Summer’s End,” Film Comment 37.1, January 2001, p. 55. ↩