THE NEON BIBLE (1995, UK, Terence Davies, John Kennedy Toole novella)
If you were different from anybody else in town, you had to get out. They used to say in school, "you have to think for yourself," but you couldn't do that in town. You have to think what your father thought and that was what everybody thought.
Consider the rocky literary life of John Kennedy Toole. Born in 1937, he wrote THE NEON BIBLE during last high school year, a moody Flannery O'Connor-inspired piece about growing up in backwoods Baptist country. No one would publish it. A decade later he wrote A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. No one would publish it. In 1969, he committed suicide. Toole's mother took the manuscript to Walker Percy, who championed the book: it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. THE NEON BIBLE was published in 1989, and Terence Davies' film adaptation was booed off the screen at the Cannes Festival in 1995.
The film's only advocate seems to be the formidable Jonathan Rosenbaum, who draws comparisons with referencing A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, DAYS OF HEAVEN and the "troubled Christianity" of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, finding "fleeting poetic moments so ecstatic that you may feel yourself rising off your seat." Knowing nothing of the film but its title, that was precisely my experience.
Watching this film is much like seeing a contemporary dance recital or spending an hour and a half viewing installations in a gallery. An aesthetic experience rather than a narrative one: evocative, indirect. We often witness women in states of extreme emotion – a mother weeping, an aunt giggling – but lacking any direct narrative context, we're left to our own devices to figure out why, and even when, these things are happening. Until it occurs to us that this is just how a sensitive child, or a naïve young man, might experience these moments, denied explanation or an understanding of the adult matters that have brought such things to pass.
Southern religion permeates the film, but it's as hard to figure what it signifies as it is to make out what everything else adds up to in this exquisiitely filmed dream landscape. Theatrically conceived, its deliberate visual images seem composed on a vast soundstage in the manner of, say, DOGVILLE, another outsider's vision America's past – though Davies eschews von Trier's pointed narrative and thematic thrust. It's not that there's no story: by the film's end (if you make it that far) you'll find you can recount all the major events in this troubled family's history, and there enough of them to fill a conventional TV mini-series. But you arrive at the details of the story strictly by innuendo and intuition.
This is a film that's far more interested in the feel of things than it is in the cause-and-effect logic of what brings them to pass. The texture of a white sheet on a clothesline, the litany of voices in a revival meeting, the thought of snow falling or not falling at Christmas – perhaps all are the reflection of a too-finely-tuned sensibility, a troubled young mind that lacks the capacity to order experience in conventional ways.
Some films trace their lineage back to tales told round ancient campfires: the pictures are just story illustrations that get up and move around. Others spring from the drawings on the walls of caves, and then to the images that hang on gallery walls: there may be story there, but it's mostly an excuse to look at pictures. Pictures that move.
THE NEON BIBLE is almost nothing but moving pictures – the essence of cinema, or a crashing bore. But if that sounds like something you might want to see, you might just find something more. You may find yourself quietly and mysteriously moved.
Available at Videomatica