It takes a special filmmaker to do what Lawrence Johnston does. There are certainly no Australian documentarians working today that I can think of doing what he does. He takes subjects of such a niche and specialised variety and treats them with the utmost of dedication and care by compiling sprawling cinematic examinations that strike at the historical heart of his subjects while also allowing for delight, fun, and even whimsy. Like prior films Eternity, Night, and Fallout, his films take life’s anecdotes and create a visually resplendent film, cinematic poems if you will, that fly in the face of what documentary cinema typically is in Australia. Neon is more traditional in structure and certainly less abstract than Night or Eternity, but no less a fluttering of style and panache that somehow makes the subject sing.
Johnston’s latest is indeed Neon, a candy-coloured journey through the American dream and how the simple product known as neon shone bright as a beacon for the hopes of a country. If that sounds somewhat hyperbolic then that’s because Johnston has done a wonderful job of collecting a dazzlingly giddy group of neon geeks. I don’t joke when I say one woman starts to cry when discussing the Pixar animation Cars, which told the story of a dying neon-infused town on Route 66. There are people who have opened museums to classic neon as well as modern electric neon art. There are people who tell stories of growing up in Las Vegas around the warming buzz of neon signs and being too distraught to watch them be torn down with the advancing of time. These people have made neon their life and they give the film an urgency and a necessity than even the most essential talking heads can sometimes miss in bigger, more important films.
Neon is a film for not only those who hold a beating, glowing love for Americana, but also enjoy surprising and unexpected historic jaunts. It’s a movie for film-lovers as it looks at how neon has played a part in cinema, particularly film-noir – one particularly humourous moment looks at Murder My Sweet and Scarlett Street and how anybody who finds themselves at a location with a buzzing neon sign must be down on their luck. It charts the ebbs and flows of public perception to the product as well as the efforts to save this wonderfully evocative artform.
If some of the transitions between subjects aren’t as elegant as they could be, or if some of the green screen work in the talking heads sequences are a bit wonky, then they don’t really take away from the core of the film. Johnston’s film works best when simply compiling montages of neon imagery, akin to what he did the romanticising of the midnight light in Night, in all of their flickering, buzzing glory. The film is predominantly American-set, but one sequence does see him look at neon’s beginnings in Europe, and another goes around the world to see how other countries have utilised it including Melbourne and its famed skipping girl neon sign. It is your friend who knows everything about one specific topic and won’t stop talking about it. Neon has the simple charm of a mid-west diner. It’s not Citizenfour, but what it does offer is something classic and yet unique. You’ll never know you needed this much information about neon signs, but that’s sometimes what the best documentaries can offer.