The Neon Bible

(Terence Davies, UK, 1995)


Terence Davies’ The Neon Bible is the story of a down-at-heel, Southern American family life during the depressed, savage times of the 1940s. It’s a gloomy coming-of-age tale centred on a young boy, David (played first by Drake Bell and then as a teenager by Jacob Tierney) – and, as such, a good antidote to all those feel-good Wonder Years-type rite-of-passage films. Above all, it features the magnificent Gena Rowlands: a beautiful showcase for her strength and fragility, her soulful beauty and quietly nutty sense of humour. As a matter of fact, I’ll jump the gun on this review and evaluate The Neon Bible in a nutshell: when Rowlands is on-screen, the film comes alive; and when she’s off-screen – which is rather too often – it dies.


I haven’t read the novel by John Kennedy Toole on which the film is based. Some passionate fans of Toole’s books have been absolutely livid about Davies’ adaptation, claiming it is untrue to the spirit, tone and detail of the original. Something that’s obvious, even without reading the book, is that Davies has insisted on his right to do a free, poetic adaptation of it. What’s even more obvious is that Davies’ adaptation is deeply personal, to the extent that The Neon Bible seems an outright continuation, or reworking, of his earlier, autobiographical films.


Some viewers are going to find this just too strange or forbidding tat the outset. For instance, you don’t get much sense of America, American life, its culture or personality types – it’s still the inner, very British world of Terence Davies, no matter where it’s set or where it’s shot. And there will also be viewers, familiar with Davies’ previous work, disturbed with its heavy quality of sameness. Davies is an auteur in an almost Freudian sense: he seems gripped by a veritable compulsion to repeat himself, to elaborate over and over, from one movie to the next, the elements of his personal, private, poetic universe.


Now, as poetic universes go, Davies’ is not bad. His films can cast a true spell. One of the great clichés of film and literary criticism these days is calling something Proustian. This refers to the way that memories – real or embroidered, perhaps even wholly invented – can be triggered by sensory impressions: a smell, the feel of a texture, the pattern in a pavement. Many films that try to be Proustian execute their memory-flashes in a very obvious, underlined way: a bell chimes in the present day, then we return to a bell chiming twenty years previously. It’s become an easy way of making transitions between scenes, and between the present and the past.


Davies, however, is more authentically Proustian – or more authentically himself – because he takes out all the bridgework. Everything we see, every event and gesture, is like some lyrical, sense-memory impression. The character in the present tense who remembers it all is like an unseen, immaterial ghost: the only reality is the reality of these memories, as they flow by, one after another. This gives Davies’ films a very pointillist flavour, almost non-narrative, as in The Long Day Closes (1992). 


The memory scenes or impressions in The Neon Bible are weirder and less attached to a central plot than ever – I automatically called it a “tale” above, but is isn’t, really. These impressions seem to refer to, or be generated from, an intense, infantile experience: an experience of, above all, solitude. Like Wim Wenders in his good old days (up until Wings of Desire in 1987), Davies is a poet of what I’d call the half-life experience. A half-life because it’s the viewpoint of the stranger in paradise: watching, yearning, but excluded from the realm of action, of history and change. Almost the entirety of The Neon Bible sets out to capture a certain blissful, eternal, non-narrative moment of childhood plenitude. There is violence and madness, poverty and entropy at the edge of this picture; but, essentially, it’s like a womb of sensory impressions for David – and for Davies, too. And the spell is broken only by an almost random incident of shocking chaos near the end – perhaps the oddest moment in any of Davies’ films.


As a viewer, too, you can feel like you’re inside the womb as you watch The Neon Bible. Events of sight and sound come at us as if cut adrift from their original meaning and source. There are magical, almost surreal effects. At one moment, the camera tracks toward a humble, white bedsheet blowing in the wind; on the soundtrack we hear the tinny burst of some classic Hollywood movie music, and the sheet is suddenly an emblem of a movie screen, a screen for the projection of fantasy. Yet there is no actual scene anywhere of David going to the movies, or developing an adolescent passion for them. There is only this single, almost abstract gesture. Davies’ screen poetry is written in this type of audiovisual shorthand.


In other scenes, just as in Davies’ best known work (and his career breakthrough), Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), it is the murmur of the radio – its stream of songs and mellifluous presenters – that speaks to us from some far-off place of the imagination. And almost every site (like a dance hall), every communal gathering in the street or on a porch, is framed and lit like a theatre – as if every life (or half-life) is remembered as a solemn ritual, a proscenium-arch re-enactment of things past. I don’t entirely, rationally understand this intense, intimate association of memory with theatre, but it has an undeniable emotional power – here as in Martin Scorsese’s magnificent The Age of Innocence (1993), or the oeuvre of Manoel de Oliveira.


As in Scorsese’s film, the rituals of memory offer to Davies a guarantee of personal identity; almost a glue that holds one’s self together. To lose these impressions of the past would be to dissolve that self entirely, it seems. Davies more than merely sympathises or empathises with little, passive David: we feel that, from behind the camera, he becomes this character in a total and overwhelming act of projection, vampirically absorbs him. In order to make his movies as he does, Davies must identify completely with the melancholic, half-life position.


A key aspect of Davies’ poetic universe, and hence his glued-together artistic identity, is a certain portrayal of the adult men and women who surround the dazed, omni-seeing (and hearing) child. This universe is overwhelmingly feminine. Women swathe the little boy in sounds, song, perfume, the fabric of dresses and the touch of hair (cf. John Boorman’s 1987 screen memoir, Hope and Glory). The woman’s world is a great, maternal shell – and if even if David’s biological mother, Sarah (Diana Scarwid), isn’t quite up to the task, there’s always Aunt Mae (Rowlands) on hand to provide the ever-gentle mothering (and smothering). Davies’ men, on the other hand, are strangers, intruders – brutal, barbarous patriarchs, who get drunk and go mad and lash out with their fists at their women. Denis Leary, a generally comic actor with a vicious edge I greatly admire, is superbly cast as David’s dark, disappearing father.


Now, it will sound reductive and simplistic to say it this way, but a certain thought is inescapable to any sensitive viewer of Davies’ collected film work. His public identity is that of a gay man, a gay artist – even though this identity is only rarely explicitly marked in the movies themselves (as with many gay artists, the sensibility expresses itself via many masks). When gayness does come up as a subject, as in the early, short autobiographical pieces comprising the so-called Terence Davies Trilogy (1976-1983), it’s depicted with an extraordinary, almost overwhelming degree of shame and self-loathing. But everything in every moment of his oeuvre seems to be reaching out to tell us that his gay identity is obviously bound up with this primal experience of feminine love and masculine terror within the patriarhcal and heterosexual nuclear family unit – as if his sexual self finds its origin in, and was created by, this particular, very psycho-sexually specific crucible of remembered, formative moments.


Here’s the less happy news. For about the first 30 or 40 minutes, I was able to flow with the drifting, mnemonic sensations of The Neon Bible; and I was pleasantly happy to entertain all these thoughts about half-life and identity which it suggested to me. But, finally, it is a very fragile half-life for an entire feature film, draining away long before the end. It’s hard for any director, however talented, to sustain the spell of a non-narrative procession of Proustian moments. It’s particularly hard for Davies here, I feel, because he gives himself an almost impossible obstacle: centring everything on a young man who is so blank and passive that he’s almost catatonic. It takes Gilles Deleuze idea about the reactive, sleepwalker heroes of 1960s cinema to a new and fatal extreme.


It’s precisely here that I think people divide into opposing camps on the topic of Terence Davies. For those melancholics (like myself) who find something voluptuously beautiful in all this passivity and distant yearning, Davies is an attractive figure. But I don’t doubt there are many other viewers who get terribly impatient during any of his films, who just want to somehow reach through the screen and grab the director, compelling him to get it together and get on with it.


The womb-like fantasy of the remembered half-life can, after all, sometimes be an excuse, an evasion – a way of not trying to live at all in the ongoing, present tense of the immediate, social world at hand.

MORE Davies: The House of Mirth

© Adrian Martin November 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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