(Air Date: Week Of 07/10/96)
There are only two things I liked about Terence Davies' latest film, "The Neon Bible," and one of them is something that doesn't happen: no one sings "Danny Boy" at the end. That made me feel blessed because you do have to sit through all the verses to "The Old Rugged Cross," and a melancholy rendition of "Toora Loora Looral," not to mention "Dixie" and "Tara's Theme," and much, much more . If you saw Terence Davies earlier film, "Distant Voices, Still Lives," you'll remember his inexplicable predilection for throwing in songs for sad, ironic emphasis, and letting them drone on and on.
But, here's the good news about the film: the appearance of one of the screen's most riveting, and unfortunately, too seldom seen actresses, Gena Rowlands. She plays Aunt Mae, an aging showbiz wannabee, who moves in with her fragile sister's family in a small Bible Belt town in the 40's. Her sensitive young nephew, Frank is entranced by Aunt Mae and her tales of past glory. The town is the sort of place where, in the words of sensitive young Frank, every one is the same because any one who is different moves out.
There's an imaginary proscenium in every scene-- that's the plane that divides a stage from the audience, and the overall effect is self-consciously theatrical. This is a style that Terence Davies seems to strive for, God knows why. Especially uncomfortable, and just plain tedious, is an ol' fashioned revival scene with the standard hypocritical Southern preacher-- oh, no-- not another incarnation of Elmer Gantry-- do we need this? where the townfolk wander around somnambulantly singing "The Old Rugged Cross," and they have to cross back and forth, or else they'd walk right off the imaginary stage. Do we need this?
It's a shame about sensitive young Frank even if his aunt is a gas. Aunt Mae can't save him any more than Gena Rowland's incandescent prescence can save this film. His mean-spirited dad gets killed in the war, his mom goes looney, and when a hot teenaged girl comes on to him, he has the bad judgment to ask her to marry him instead of trying to make out. "The Neon Bible" is based on a novel by John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the deeply bitter, but hilarious, novel "A Confederacy of Dunces," and then killed himself. But don't see "The Neon Bible" expecting that kind of bracing black humor -- this film delivers only a monotonal despair.
Still, if you're looking for something that dredges up all the dreary dregs of marriage and family life, and small town America, and life in general, in the most lugubrious way imaginable, catch the "The Neon Bible."
Copyright 1996 Mary Weems
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