Art & Neon

DATELINE:  Hitch Loved Neon

 Neon Novak Novak in Neon!

An Australian film, Neon may seem like a subject hardly worthy of excitement. When some of the interviewees talk about the colored gas lights, you begin to think they need to get a life.

Neon, of course, defines American business, urban life, and a change in American perspective. Once you realize that the invention and adoption of neon lights in American business altered the landscape of the nation, you begin to recognize how special it is.

Not surprisingly, once again Nikola Tesla enters the picture as one of the prime inventors of neon light, but he never patented it, nor made a nickel off the product. Patent fights centered over a Frenchman who produced lights first stunning Paris.

Though the United States featured several World Fairs with cities of lights in the 19th century, the notion of neon changed the life of urban America when it seemed to debut and spread over Broadway and Manhattan in the 1920s.

Neon’s bright and jazzy colors and motion brought forth a new nocturnal culture. And, it was immediately picked up as a motif in movies, first in musicals and as a flashy jazz parallel. Only later did it turn dark with film noir—and then color noir.

Neon captivated movies. Indeed, Hitchcock loved to use neon—in his great movies like Psycho (that alluring Bates Motel) and as the garish green ghost of Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Las Vegas is where the light-scale went bonkers in the years after World War II. Nothing could compare to the garish, commercial call. Yet, the images of flashing logos became landmarks, not just sales gimmicks.

The film presents an array of magnificent shots of glowing neon signs and streets across the world.

Only when neon began its inevitable fade to black did artists and museums realize it needed preservation. As an expensive means of communication, it now seems to be finding homes in art refugee centers. However, mammoth chunks of 90 feet of neon is not conducive to indoor display.

The film turns elegiac when neon starts to lose the battle with time and timeliness. At least a movie like this will allow future viewers to see what magnificence it truly inspired.