Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Neon Bible

The Neon Bible (1995), loosely based on a novel written by John Kennedy Toole when he was 16 years old, is a stagey, doleful, impressionistic account of a young boy's life in a torn and eccentric family in the early 1940s. If Toole is in any sense identifiable with the young protagonist of the story, then perhaps we can infer that the novel and film tell us something about the nature of his life with his own mother. But that is speculation at best.

Placed in Georgia (the credits say it was filmed on location in Madison, Crawfordville, and Atlanta), the film is contrived and artificial. It lacks life, has little to say, other than implying that life in the 1940s South was repressive. We see the boy's father (played by an unrecognizable Dennis Leary) take him to a lynching. There are several scenes involving church and revival services where the emphasis falls on sin and hellfire damnation. In one voiceover that accompanies a scene of people sitting in church, the protagonist explains that in his town you had to be like everyone else or you had to leave town—there was no alternative. The film's title is perhaps suggests the repressive atmosphere of the world in which the boy grew up.

The scenes seem to shift back and forth in time, to some extent, although the overall movement of the narrative is chronologically forward. Ostensibly, the film focuses on the arrival in the family of Aunt Mae, the older sister of the boy's mother. She is played by Gene Rowlands, who is too old for the part, but who nonetheless plays it well. Mae is a singer and performer who left the stage for reasons unspecified. She spends much of the film reminiscing about her days on the stage and the men who courted her. As the boy's mother sinks deeper and deeper into mental illness, Mae is the boy's confidante and companion. Her departure towards the end of the film traps him, since his mother has to be watched on a 24-hour basis, forcing him to quit his job as a drugstore clerk.

There are some contrived set pieces in the film, one at a revival service and another at a World War II-era fundraiser where Mae sings. There are scenes in which the camera lingers for long seconds and perhaps minutes on random images—for instance, the dark, cavernous entrance to the tent where a revival is taking place. These scenes suggest the impact of the past, of the boy's memories, perhaps, but they add to the awkward, pretentious character of the film. They seem purposeless. They take up time rather than move the film forward or somehow enhance the portrayal of a character or the evocation of a mood,.

The film is slow and melodramatic. The boy's parents argue and fight. His father doesn't want Aunt Mae in the house. They have no money. We watch the mother gradually lose her mind—we see several scenes of her suffering, mainly evinced by her tendency to cry at revivals and public gatherings. Does she go mad because of a repressive family life, because of her husband's death in the war, because of competition with the more outgoing Mae? The movie doesn't suggest a reason—it simply illustrates. The boy makes tentative but unsuccessful attempts to be friends with girls. Finally, when Mae announces she is leaving to take what she hopes will be a job in Nashville, the boy is trapped. He returns home from the train station where he has told Mae goodbye to find his mother collapsed and bleeding on the upper store of their house. Instead of calling for a doctor, he drags her into the bedroom and puts her on a bed, where he lovingly embraces her while she goes about dying. Is this intentional, his failure to seek medical help? In the novel, the boy kills his mother. In the film, after the mother dies and while he is burying her, a local preacher arrives to cart his mother off to the mental asylum. The boy kills him with a shot gun.

The whole film is told retrospectively, as the boy sits in a train car riding towards an undetermined destination. He looks out an empty dark window and remembers the scenes that the film dramatizes. To my knowledge, this film was never released in wide distribution. The New York Times review describes the film's British director Terence Davies as "a gifted cinematic poet whose semi-autobiographical films 'Distant Voices, Still Lives' and 'The Long Day Closes' present a child's-eye view of growing up in Liverpool in the late 1940s and 50s, Davies uses film like Proust's madeleine to recapture the past. Storytelling is wound around a montage of images and songs that have a mystical personal resonance." The same method seems evident here, but for whatever reason—the fact that Davies is not working with his own life, the tentativeness of the novel, his own unfamiliarity with the setting of the story, it doesn't work.

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