Streaming Weekend: “The Neon Bible,” a Coming of Age Tale Amidst Music and Horror



Director Terence Davies turns “The Neon Bible” into a personal story by ricochet, a vision of American culture that has refined and broadened his own youthful sensibility.

British director Terence Davies, whose films combine style with emotion both exquisitely and inventively, is also one of the great autobiographers of cinema. His third feature film, “The Neon Bible,” from 1995 (now streaming free on Tubi and Pluto), is a devious autobiography – it’s an adaptation of a novel written by teenage John Kennedy Toole, and it tells the birth story of the aesthetic sensibility of a lonely and troubled boy. It is the first in Davies’ powerful series of expressly literary feature films. These include “The House of Mirth”, quite simply one of the best American literary adaptations ever to be filmed (and it is not available to stream, keep your DVDs), “A Quiet Passion” and its new movie. , “Benediction,” a bio-pic by poet Siegfried Sassoon, premiering this week at the Toronto Film Festival, and slated for US release next year. “The Neon Bible” is also, like all of Davies’ feature films, a musical, of a personal and original genre. Davies said that the art that movies are most like is music. (I agree.) He spoke (and for that matter filmed autobiographically) of awakening his own sensitivity through singing – the casual, domestic song of women – which has filled his daily life. childhood, in Liverpool, as well as through the Hollywood musicals which have been his inspirations since then. “The Neon Bible” tells the story of a professional singer who breaks into the narrow life of a boy in a small town in the South. The singer is played by one of the greatest actors, Gena Rowlands, who covers the film with passion and style, just as her character makes the life of the boy.

“The Neon Bible” is a film from memory. It’s built entirely as flashbacks of the sorry night train in which teenager David (Jacob Tierney), who is all fifteen or sixteen, flees his hometown and remembers the events that led to his desperate escape. (His deep mood is accompanied by a deep cut from Glenn Miller, the chromatic and melodramatic “Perfidia.”) The action takes place in the 1940s, from the beginning of the decade to the end of World War II; it begins with the teenager’s childhood memories (young David is played by Drake Bell), when his aunt Mae (Rowlands) comes to live with him, his mother, Sarah (Diana Scarwid), and his father, Frank ( Denis Leary), in their cramped and struggling home, monotonous and stressed by depression. From the start, Mae is an outsider for her free spirit and the freedom with which she flaunts it. The community is fervent, conservative and religious, and Sarah blames them for the bright colors and tight fit of her clothes upon arrival. Frank wants to throw her out, but Sarah, within earshot of David, says Mae has nowhere to go. Mae herself arrives with the bittersweet burden of memory – her singing career with local bands (her crowning glory was playing Biloxi), failed, and she found herself unemployed, penniless, penniless. resources. What remains to her are her newspaper clippings (which she reads to David like a book of tales from distant and glorious legend) and her memories – which Davies films with painful romance, in a single, drifting take. from the bare family porch to the light halcyon stage in which she performs “How Long Has This Been Going On?” with a jazz group, and return to its current and idle melancholy.

David is a bullied child and he forms a deep bond with Mae that further alienates him from his classmates. Mae invites him to wash his hair; she takes him for a walk around town, frantically calling him Franchot Tone (a star at the time) and herself Jean Harlow. Young David’s dream life is quickly shattered: there is a clamor near the house, and Frank carries David on his back to observe the uproar, which turns out to be a lynching that the neighbors, all white of course, deal with. like a festive event. It’s shattered again: While arguing over money, Frank brutally punches Sarah, leaving Mae to deal with her and David to fear for his life. With these two events, David steps onto the screen, with a special effect as simple as it is daring, from childhood and is forced into premature maturity, candid recognition of the monstrosity at hand and the terrifying urgency. to face it. He also becomes, now, Mae’s confidant, and she disproves him from visions of his former glory and contrasts his love of the stage with the degradations of the traveling music profession and the reckless and painful love life that accompanied it. (Rowlands plays Mae with her own singular energies – wise to the world but hopeful and impulsive, overwhelmed by the past but recklessly vacillating forward.) David realizes that Mae and her mother are figures of a tragedy. in which he is only a support player. but where, in adulthood, as a man, he will be called upon to play a role which still remains obscure to him.

Then the United States entered World War II. Frank goes to war and the intrusion of history with a capital “H” into the life of the family proves devastating. Davies films the important moments in a style that is both grandiose and hypersensitive. Majestically choreographed travellings show the men of the city walking towards the train which takes them to war; Mae’s spontaneous performance of “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, dancing with another woman, in a local venue, which rekindles Mae’s professional ambitions and career prospects; David’s recitation of a poem (by Longfellow) that marks him with a sensitivity that he knows makes him totally foreign to the city in which he lives. The eventful preaching at a revival meeting (which Davies films with fiery and rhetorical fascination), the racist and xenophobic political slurs on the radio, only intensify David’s desperation to escape. Yet David remains linked to his city by his responsibility to Sarah, who begins a heartbreaking descent into mental illness. His own romantic awakening and emotional frustrations, along with a growing sense of responsibility and confusion about his own place in the world, lead him to an explosive resolution that ultimately forces him to find his way at a good age. too young.

Davies films these memories of toil and anguish – of glimmers of aesthetic delight and worldly seduction, of romantic intensity and erotic torment, of the struggle for personal freedom – with slow images of dreamily choreographed actions, in a unique and complex style which, mixing majesty and intimacy, embodies the paradoxes of history. Davies is a gay man who grew up in a staunch Catholic community. No less than in his directly autobiographical, Liverpool-based films, he portrays the tensions of private self-definition and the air of oppression in the southern United States with a sense of rapturous wonder and trembling vulnerability. It turns “The Neon Bible” into a personal story by ricochet, a vision of the realities, both appalling and electrifying, of American culture which has refined and broadened its own youthful sensibility – the ambient violence and desperate struggles, the raw survival of noble impulses, the lonely spirit of stubborn adventure, of which the imagination itself is composed.

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