Renowned documentary film-maker, Lawrence Johnston, made a whirlwind visit to Adelaide last week, to attend a showing of his latest work Neon, at the Mercury Cinema.
This is Johnston’s fourth feature documentary: his previous work includes the award-winning Eternity, and more recently Fallout, which explored Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.
Neon explores the history and sociology of neon lighting, and in particular its zenith in advertising form in 50s and 60s America. Although filled with fascinating and quirky facts about the technology, like all of Johnston’s works, this is fundamentally a film about memory. It is littered with funny and moving interviews with devotees, museum curators, artists and historians, all bringing their own brand of nostalgia and arcane knowledge.
“For anybody to be in a film, they have to be engaging,” Johnston tells us. “It’s like an actor; they’re giving a performance in a sense. I had to find the shining lights! Like in drama, everyone in the film is a messenger.”
Through the 84 minutes of this feature, we visit the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas, go on a Neon Cruise around Los Angeles, view beautiful works of neon art and watch in awe as people install enormous signs, with an appalling lack of safety equipment!
There is a particularly moving interview, when one woman becomes quite emotional. Johnston told us that he had been advised by some to cut the scene out, in case this woman “looked foolish”. With a great, film-maker’s instinct, he left it in and the warm response from the audience attests to the correctness of his decision. When she becomes tearful, we all feel the same: that sense of loss of childhood wonder and aspiration, which colourful, neon lights, seem to trigger in most of us.
This is just one of many, surprisingly moving moments in the film.
We asked Johnston what first piqued his interest in this subject-matter.
“Well I’ve sprinkled neon through some of my other films, and I’ve always loved it. So I started doing some research for myself and started to think there’s something in this. And for me, the biggest, most dynamic part of the story is the transference [of neon technology] from France to North America. And then it captured the imagination in that really big, commercial, dynamic way. What many people don’t realise about neon is that it’s hand-crafted. Every piece of that glass is made by hand, and still is today.”
Although the film is concentrated in the USA, Johnston also loves the famous neon signs of Australia.
“I travelled to Sydney recently for a screening of Neon. I caught the train from the airport and I came up at Hyde Park and saw the Chateau Tanunda sign, still turned on! And that sign is on day and night; it doesn’t get turned off.”
Talking of neon’s longevity, Johnston recalls a story he heard, which didn’t make it into the film
“In Los Angeles, recently, they found a strip of neon, inside a wall, still turned on. Apparently it had been turned on for seventy years! They just found it there as they were pulling away panels.”
Neon is a joy to watch, even for those of us who didn’t think we had a particular interest in this art form. Johnston is one of Australia’s best documentary makers and, being a director who also works in fictional forms, he understands how to craft a narrative, even when it is put together with interviews, stills and archival footage.
So what is the next project for this eclectic film-maker?
“It’s going to be a history of the Gold-Coast!” he proclaims. “There’s never been a large-scale film about that area. Hopefully I’ll start shooting that at the end of the year. It will be called [attesting to Johnston’s love of punchy, one-word titles], Paradise.”
The Mercury Cinema will screen Neon for a short season from 28 August 2016, opening with a “Meet the film-maker” special event.
Interview by Tracey Korsten