The Neon Bible (1995)
Seen at: BAM Rose Cinemas
Who: Terence Davies (d), Gena Rowlands, Jacob Tierney, Denis Leary, Diana Scarwid, Frances Conroy
Baggage: First viewing. The 35mm didn’t make it, so we watched a DVD.
Bias: I’m catching up with Davies, in the wake of The Deep Blue Sea.
From an email to Organization Man:
The Neon Bible is an antsy and difficult film, so littered with scattered bits of disconnected staccato poetry that it’s no real surprise at the end when the whole thing trips over itself and swoons in a spell on the stairs. It wasn’t the planes; ‘twas clutter killed the beast.
Terence Davies’s prints are all over it – I have not read the John Kennedy Toole book, and so I can’t compare – and if the summary in the Wiki is to be trusted, Davies follows the broad strokes of the book and omits a lot of the shading, as one would expect. It sounds like he was interested in the events occurring in young David’s life, and perhaps not so much in how they played out after the first eruptions. So it’s enough to meet the venal preacher at his revival camp; we needn’t follow the trouble he causes when he settles in town. It’s enough to see a fiery fellow in a white hoodie; we don’t actually meet the Klan. It’s a kind of shorthand that works because we already know what to think about the American South in the WWII era, but it doesn’t reveal much for the heart to hold.
Davies apparently has agreed that the film is not a great success, and he acknowledges that it’s his doing. But he calls it a transitional work, and offers that he couldn’t have created The House of Mirth without it. That makes a quiet sort of sense to me.
Much of the beauty of the film – it has lovely images throughout, and that thoughtful gliding camera that Davies does so well – was lost in my viewing; BAM’s 35mm print was being shipped from England, and for some reason it was held up at Customs and did not make it in time for the screening, so they played a DVD version instead. Not a Blu-Ray, which I find unpleasantly granulated in projection, but a DVD. So you can imagine the loss of quality. It was like peering through a porthole into Blur City, and when we might have been musing on the glories of the southern night, instead we were watching the dancing pixels try to decide what color to be. But they gave out free passes to the audience for future reference, for our trouble.
If you watch the film in better resolution that I did, you may find occasion to enjoy the games Davies plays with treating his locations as theatrical sets, panning out from nighttime porches into dimly-drawn nightclubs, or pushing through the entrance of a revival tent to find an audience uncomfortably packed together on circus bleachers, looking (intentionally) for all the world like a bunch of extras in period costume sitting packed together on circus bleachers. Much of the film works as a swirl of story and artifice; it’s only right at the end that the frame can’t quite hold up under the plot of it all, and snaps.
I should mention that the delightful Frances Conroy appears twice, and momentarily, in the completely gratuitous role of Cloris Leachman from The Last Picture Show. When young David makes a delivery to her home one bright afternoon, she asks if he ever delivers in the evening. And then she asks him to, you know, come over with her basket, nudge nudge. David’s a bit slow at this, but he reckons that something is wrong, and he declines to enter her home on his next visit; she throws some money at him, and closes the door. We in the audience, much like David himself no doubt, sit for a moment, wondering what that was all about.