NEON. Australia, 2016. Directed by Lawrence Johnston. 83 minutes, Rated PG (mild animated nudity)
Have we ever given much thought to neon lights and signs? Perhaps we have just simply taken them for granted and enjoyed their bright and colourful existence, especially illuminating nightlife, advertising, informing, just the exhilaration of their being there. As this film indicates, they have been under threat from rival technologies for decades, the development of the use of plastic in signs and advertising, and the current digital technology of L.E.D lighting and the proliferation of flat screens.
It can be said that this is an exemplary documentary, Australian director Lawrence Johnston doing extensive research, writing a screenplay and directing. It could be seen as something of documentary masterclass. And, it can be viewed as a masterclass on neon.
While there are many talking heads, their interventions are generally brief and to the point, highlighting a particular aspect of the history of neon lights, the impact in the United States, examples all over the world, the decline of neon, but the hopes for a number of people who have created museums for signs, and in Las Vegas, a “boneyard” for huge neon signs taken down from the many casinos during their reconstruction.
So, while there is a great deal of historical information, technical material, social commentary, the film serves as a feast of colours, shapes, movement, all the exhilaration of some beautiful lights, some garish, some crassly commercial, some persuasively offering information and advertising.
For those of a historical frame of mind, Johnston shows us quite a lot of contemporary footage, the World Fairs illuminated at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, the initial development in Paris, the entrepreneur work of Georges Claude, the initiator of Claude Neon, and the introduction of neon to the United States in 1924 and its immediate proliferation. Most of the examples throughout the film are from the United States, opening with scenes of Las Vegas, and returning there extensively. There are glimpses of neon illumination from other cities, London, Vancouver, Havana, Hong Kong, Melbourne and the Skipping Girl, Sydney but only a Coca-Cola ad!, and Japanese developments in the city of Osaka.
Of particular interest to film buffs is the section showing clips from 40s and 50s films and the different uses of neon lighting – especially for sinister atmosphere.
While there is great deal of nostalgia from the interviewees, most admit that the technologies began to change for neon with the introduction of plastic from 1970 onwards and there is the reminder of the L.E.D. lighting technology of the present.
Not a long-running time for Neon, but plenty of visual delight and we all finish the film very well informed.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
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