The Neon Bible (1995)
Terence Davies’ The Neon Bible (1995) opens with a patently surreal, metallic-blue image of a steam engine coughing to a start. The landscape we see is uncannily alien not only because it is shrouded in steam, but also because it is Davies’ first film in a foreign country. Davies, possibly inspired by the horizontality of south side America, shoots in widescreen for the first time (and how!), departing from the cozy aspect ratios of his British films, with a healthy contempt for the shot-reverse shot grammar, squarely centre-framing his characters and providing a palpable sense of isolation marking them. Adapted from John Kennedy Toole’s debut novel (written when the author was just 16), The Neon Bible is ostensibly a transition work for Davies. One could have, in fact, seen this sort of a picture coming right after his previous film, given how it had exhaustively mined the British filmmaker’s interests, providing a magnificent summation of his career thus far. Consequently, The Neon Bible straddles not only the experimental, elliptical structures of all his earlier works and the more straightforward narrative of The House of Mirth (2000), but also the honest, affecting, personal expression that had so far been the hallmark of Davies’ work and genre conventions and tropes that seem to have tagged along with this American outing of his. Davies attempts to impart a personal dimension to the text by punctuating it with sequences involving church, cinema and classroom – the three most characteristic spaces in Davies’ cinema – and the indistinct borders between each of them. But then, he also designates a rank cliché borrowed from independent cinema as one of the two important characters of the film: the aging, washed-up artist played by Gena Rowlands (who reprises and recycles her work with Cassavetes). However, the scenes involving the lead David (Jacob Tierney) are much more authentic and moving, especially the Sokurov-like episodes with his mother.