More than a decade after the 31-year-old Toole attached a hosepipe to his car exhaust, fed it into the vehicle and locked the doors on Mississippi, his novel won the Pulitzer Prize.
John Kennedy Tooie: frustrated genius
things. If i read it and I know where to put the camera, I’ll do it. If I can’t see it in my head, then I won’t. Luckily, I read it at a single sitting, and during the first paragraph i knew how I wanted to shoot it.
‘He [Toole] wrote it when he was sixteen, so there are some very weak passages, but that doesn’t really matter, the central idea is so good. David, the young protagonist, is on a train journey, travelling through the night, thinking about the things that led up to him being there. I’m fascinated by time and memory, by the flux of memory and consciousness.’
Filming in Cinemascope for the first time, Davies’ own adaptation gives his eagerly- anticipated nocturnal railway sequences a genuine sense of intrigue and anticipation. The heart of the film, though, lies in the interplay between its fate-tossed characters and the performances the Englishman has drawn from an impressive cast. Canadian Jacob Tierney is the sensitive adolescent waking up to the wonder and iniquity of the world around him, and Gina Rowlands is wonderful as Aunt Mae, the strong-yet- vulnerable older woman in his life. Adding light and shade are a heart-tending Diana Scarwid - memorable in Silkwood and Bumble Fish - as the boy’s mother and Denis Leary as a gruff, but not too over-played father.
While the storyline puts all concerned, including the patient viewer, through the emotional wringer, it was important for Davies not to let the acting boil over. ‘For me, the novel is like Tennessee Williams played as Chekhov,’ he says. ‘It’s so heartbreaking because it’s so unsentimental. Sentimentality is unearned emotion. Far better to move someone than make them cry, and far harder.’
Rich, dark, stately, and often very beautiful, The Neon Bible is shot through with the moments of celluloid epiphany that mark it out as very much a Terence Davies film. Do this occasion, though, the emotional impact so readily presented throughout his earlier output, builds steadily throughout the film before exploding in a tragic final reel that ranks with anything he’s done to date. ills ambitions for the movie, straightforward perhaps, have in the end been realised: ‘Yes, I suppose I’ve taken a good deal of poetic licence, but I hope it’s still true to the essence of the book. A film’s a film and it has to have its own dynamic. If you’re going to be slavish to the page, why do it? You might as well just read the novel lnstead.’
Terence Davies’ The Neon Bible is showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre and the Flimhouse, Edinburgh from Friday 27 October.
THE NEON BIBLE FEATURE
Phil McIntyre presents
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