Neon Bible: Starring Gena Rowlands

The Neon Bible is Terence Davies’ first film to be set in the United States.  A young boy comes of age in rural Georgia during the 1930 and the 1940s in this visually satisfying but thematically flawed and dramatically inert 1995 drama, by far Davies’ weakest work.

Acclaimed for his evocative reflections of his own past as a boy of various ages in post-WWII England, Davies looks beyond his home country with his adaptation of the novel by John Kennedy Toole, who’s also the author of “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Once again, the story is told through the subjective eyes of an ultra-sensitive teenager, here named David, who is played by Jacob Tierney at age 15, and by Drake Bell at age 10.  Like Davies himself, and his alter-egos in the British films, everyday life is one big continuous struggle for David.

“The Neon Bible” is narrated by David, who reflects on his youthful experiences with his father, a laid-off factory worker who turns to agriculture and fails.  Abusive and short-tempered, he’s like Davies’ own father in his British movies. Once the father goes into war, the small family (David is the only child), slides into breakdown and deterioration. David is raised by his emotionally unstable mother Sarah, who eventually loses grip on reality. David’s chronic loneliness is interrupted by the arrival of his mother’s sister, Aunt Mae, a fun-loving, swing-band vocalist with a sputtering career, who stays with the family for several years.

The literary source upon which the movie is based has an interesting story: Toole’s first novel, which was written in 1954 when he was 16.  Toole once described the novel as “a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various religions in the South. The fundamentalist mentality is one of the roots of what was happening in Alabama.” Toole did not think much about his creation—“the book was bad, but I sent it off a couple of times anyway.”  The book was only published after the successful reception of his second novel, “A Confederacy of Dune. Toole, who committed suicide in 1969 and never saw the publication of either book, left his manuscripts under the control of his mother, Thelma.

In the novel and film, David learns of the religious, racial, social, and sexual bigotryin rural Mississippi in ten strongest memories, one memory per chapter, framed by David onboard a train, trying to escape the past.  The tale comes to life when Aunt Mae, a former actress and singer, moves in with David’s working-class family in their small and provincial town. Since not much happens to David in the course of the text, the only character that experiences life is Aunt Mae, who becomes David’s mentor, surrogate mother, and confidante.

David does not get along with the other boys his own age.  As director, Davies can obviously relate to the episodes in which the ultra-sensitive, physically timid, emotionally introverted David is challenged by the more masculine boys, who slap him, beat him, and call him a “sissy.”  Unable to defend himself, the humiliated boy runs back home seeking comfort and consolation from the women, his mother and aunt.

David’s father Frank loses his factory job, and the family moves to an older house on a hill. The circumstances get worse and worse: When the family runs out of money, the frustrated and angry Frank buys seeds. When his wife argues that crops cannot grow in the clay of the hill soil, he hits her, knocking one of her teeth.  The family sighs with relief when Frank is shipped to Italy to fight in World War II.

A ”revival” ministry, which visits town, warns the residents that that popular dancing is “immoral.” But the local preacher opposes this incursion and begins a rival Bible-study class. Taking editorials in the papers and spots on the radio, each side attacks the other.

At one point, Aunt Mae becomes involved with a much older man, which ends when the latter is arrested on morality charges. Aunt Mae takes a job as a supervisor in the local propeller factory. At a company function, she entertains the crowd, and gets an invitation to join the hired band as a singer.

David’s mother descends from mental instability to outright insanity after learning that Frank had been killed in Italy. David and Aunt Mae take care of her, as Aunt Mae pursues her singing career. At age fifteen, David gets a job at the pharmacy, where he meets Jo Lynne, a girl visiting her ill grandfather. After seeing a movie together, David and Jo Lynne begin to date. Clyde, a member of Aunt Mae’s band who is in love with her, promises a record deal in Nashville, and she leaves, promising to send for David and his mother right away.

In the last reel, when David realizes that his mother is missing, he begins searching for her in the yard, where she used to spend most of her time. He finds his mother bleeding, able to utter one last word—Frank–before expiring.  From that point on, the tale becomes relentless downbeat and static. The local preacher arrives, insisting on placing Sarah in an asylum.  David tries to stop him, and as the stubborn preacher climbs the stairs, he is shot dead by David. After burying his mother, David uses the remaining money to board a train, hoping to start a new life.

David’s loose recollections make up the plot, such as it is, which stresses intense images and poetic touches over narrative momentum. Working with the cinematographer Michael Coulter, Davies again creates sharply conceived painterly compositions, but to little emotional effect.

Music has always been one of Davies’ strong suits, and a staple of his features.  In this picture, he makes evocative use of the Tara theme from “Gone with the Wind,” and Glenn Miller’s version of “Perfidia,” among others.  In the course of the tale, Aunt Mae gets to sings gently, in a small husky voice, versions of “My Romance” and “How Long Has This Been Going On?”  Aunt Mae is a feisty and sexual lounge singer, dreaming of a bigger, more successful career elsewhere.  A woman who has lived a rich life, she represents the outside world to David’s limited existence.  Once David meets her, his life is forever changed.

Few reviewers were impressed by Davies’ poetic approach and dreamlike, hallucinatory quality of the narrative.  However, critics were frustrated by the text’s slow pacing, elliptical style, and recurrent imagery of a sad, lonely boy sitting in a railroad car with a huge moon looming over his head.

What the movie lacks in dramatic thrust is only partially made up for in momentary glimpses of insight and imagery.  In “The Neon Bible,” Davies applies the same pictorial vocabulary and poetic structure to a new territory.  His storytelling is composed of images that bear some mystical resonance.  The nocturnal revival meeting and few other scenes suggest the paintings of Edward Hopper or Thomas Hart Benton. But historical authenticity is beside the point for Davies. For example, scenes of an evangelical tent show, or a Ku Klux Klan meeting, seem second-hand and peripheral.

Davies’ vision of the American South lacks the touching lyrical moments of his British-set stories. “The Neon Bible” is sharply uneven: Some domestic scenes are portrayed with acute detail, while others, like the murder of the preacher and the funeral scene, are reduced to few impressionistic images.

More than most directors, Davies knows how to convey a sense of nostalgia. The entire film is a flashback, and the studied pacing and unrelenting downward mood never really allow the viewers to forget that fact. “The Neon Bible” seldom manages to shake out of the dull funk that daydreaming creates. The end of the story takes a violent turn, upsetting viewers with its unexpected bloodshed. The conclusion is deliberately jarring, out of step with the film’s otherwise dreamy mood.

Additionally, Davies was not careful in his casting, and his leads are miscast. The two boys who play David are not expressive enough, and as played by Diana Scarwid, David’s mother Sarah comes across and a one dimensional, just hysterical woman. Fortunately, the movie boasts a strong performance by Gena Rowlands as a woman who adores the spotlight—her hot-red and purple dresses raise eyebrows among the Bible-thumping local farmers.

“The Neon Bible” is not a significant work–compared to the British masterpieces that preceded it and the personal memoir that followed.  World premiering at the Cannes Film Fest, the film was poorly received with mostly negative or indifferent reviews.  Released by Strand, “The Neon Bible” failed to register with critics or viewers. The film was barely released, shown only in the big cities, grossing a dismal figure ($78,072) in its initial run.  And it did not do much for Gena Rowlands in her post-John Cassavetes era.

Critics complained about the slow, lingering shots, which are meant to provide insightful meditation, but instead manage to arrest the film’s inherent dramatic shortcomings. Others found fault with the elliptical style, which only emphasized the film’s slender narrative and lack of continuity.  The N.Y. Times Stephen Holden suggested that the film “may have succumbed to its own dreamy esthetic” by focusing on the same image too often.  Barry Walters of the San Francisco Chronicle noted poignantly that the film “starts off dark and gets darker,” unfolding as “one long crawl into an emotional abyss without catharsis.”  Indeed, the plot is not only weak but also marred by an absurdly hopeful ending, which throws the whole tale out of balance.

Artists are often wrong in assessing the merits of their work, but in this case Davis was right on target when he told Time Out: ‘The Neon Bible’ doesn’t work, and that’s entirely my fault. The only thing I can say is that it’s a transition work. And I couldn’t have done “The House of Mirth” without it.”

 

Cast

Jacob Tierney as David, aged 15

Drake Bell as David, aged 10

Gena Rowlands as Mae Morgan

Diana Scarwid as Sarah

Denis Leary as Frank

Bob Hannah as George

Aaron Frisch as Bruce

Charles Franzen as Tannoy Voice

Leo Burmester as Bobbie Lee Taylor

Sherry Velvet as First Testifier

Stephanie Astalos-Jones as Second Testifier

Ian Shearer as Billy Sunday Thompson

Joan Glover as Flora

Jill Jane Clements as Woman

Tom Turbiville as Clyde

Sharon Blackwood as Schoolmistress

Peter McRobbie as Reverend Watkins

Ken Fight as Schoolmaster

Dana Seltzer (Dana Atwood) as Jo Lynne

Virgil Graham Hopkins as Mr. Williams

Ducan Stewart as Boy in Drugstore

J.T. Alessi as Boy in Drugstore

Duncan Stewart as Head Boy

Frances Conroy as Miss Scover

Marcus Batton as School Boy