Southern discomfort

REVIEWS : THE NEON BIBLE Terence Davies (15) Terence Davies's latest film explores childhood in redneck America. His visual genius is clear but the result is distinctly cloudy, says Adam Mars-Jones
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After two autobiographical films of a controlled intensity unique in British cinema (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes), Terence Davies announced that his next project would be a homage to Preminger's romantic thriller Laura, set in New York. This seemed a good idea, if a risky one, since it would make him do without his personal stock of emotionally charged images, and would also force him to venture some way down a path he has not previously explored: the path marked plot.

The Neon Bible, drawn from a novel that John Kennedy Toole wrote at the age of 16, is not that film, but it does go half-way to fulfilling Davies's promise. It is set in an intensely atmospheric America (an unspecified Southern town), but none of its images could come from an American film. Davies refuses the standard-issue dynamism of American cinema, and sets a pace of dreamy slowness.

Despite the change of setting, this is another story of a deprived childhood which the camera nevertheless finds rich in texture and feeling. Davies's style can still be described as a sort of lush minimalism. He is no more of a realist than, say, Peter Greenaway, but his artifice, which comes in little waves, is always keyed to the release of emotion.

If Terence Davies has a trademark shot, it's actually the same as Greenaway's, but with no sense of alienated spectacle: a walking-pace travelling shot moving parallel to a tableau. One scene of The Neon Bible is a single shot of this sort. Young David is being carried on his father's shoulders to a happy public gathering, and the camera shows us burning bodies hanging from the trees quite without emphasis. We aren't told how to absorb the fact that a lynching can be a social occasion.

In that respect, the film treats its audience as adult, but its basic drive is to make us feel as children feel. We see David's parents largely at moments of extreme harmony or discord, without the context that would explain their emotions. Adults seem crazily unpredictable, and some of them are actually crazy. The exception is Aunt Mae, the only grown-up in the film who owns up to being bruised by life. She becomes David's playmate and only real company.

Gena Rowlands has a strong tendency to be wonderful (except when directed by Woody Allen), and she is peculiarly wonderful in The Neon Bible. She sings and dances (Aunt Mae has been a singer, maybe even a chantooze), and incidentally helps remind us that Davies's ear for music is stronger and less programmatic than Dennis Potter's. Aunt Mae also betrays David in the end, leaving him to look after a widowed mother now well on the far side of sanity. Yet her desertion is, by Davies's standards, curiously unfelt. It's as if, in his idealisation of women (strong in the earlier films), he prefers not to notice.

The strangest thing about The Neon Bible, and the thing most likely to make audiences resist it, is that having chosen a child's point of view, he deprives us of the child's knowledge. Young David presumably realises that his runaway father has returned, but the first we know of it is when he leaves again to fight in the war. Later on, there's a scene at the drug-store where David works that is so fragmentary - the state asylum's van parked outside, the shop door slamming, a disembodied voice saying: "Reverend Watkins is a good Christian man" - that we can only assume his mother has been taken into care. It's a long time before we learn any different.

There were similar obscurities in Davies's earlier films, but they seemed to be an incidental flaw of autobiography - forgetting there are things you need to explain to strangers. Now we have to conclude either that he is narratively incompetent, and that his genius with images makes him a sort of freak of nature, or that he deliberately leaves audiences stranded between adult and childish perspectives, unable to make sense of events in terms of either.

At the revival meeting, for instance, which is one of the film's set- pieces, we take almost every point of view except David's. The camera makes a double formal entrance, first gliding into the tent ahead of the crowd, and then entering again backwards, to show that the tent is full. The camera is both the first and last comer. Then it shows us the preacher behind a screen waiting to start his act, saying: "Good crowd. Good money." As he preaches, we see David's mother beginning to break down, watched anxiously by Mae, but not noticed by David. Yet in the group shots David's mother seems perfectly composed. The camera roves slowly around the tent, and then leaves. The emotions of the whole sequence are unreadable.

One of the characteristic shots of The Neon Bible is where day turns to night without any other change (once, gloriously, the transformation takes place in the middle of one of those travelling shots). Everything has changed, or nothing. When the actor playing a pre-teen David is replaced by a teenager, the transition is done as a special effect - a boy in dungarees on a porch growing magically taller and broader - but when he re-enters the house, he returns to an identical scene. Davies's sense that nothing is lost, that memory is the true reality, both qualifies and disqualifies him from telling this particular story of loss, and perhaps stories generally. He ends the film, as he ended The Long Day Closes, with an extended shot of the sky, dawn instead of sunset, admittedly, but still an image of unchanging change. He leaves us with dissipating smoke and clearing clouds, up in the air, almost equally rewarded and cheated by what he has shown us.