The picture I used as my feature image is from Taxi Driver, this image encapsulates perfectly the sense of isolation, wonder and confusion of the neon lights blaring in the night. In this post I will be analysing their meaning in our culture today. To give you a taste of what I will be writing here is a verse from The sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel that was at the origin of my reflexion:
“And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made”
Neon lights were created in the early 1900’s and were used for publicity, shining at night, to attract people to a theater, to a cinema or a motel. In the pit of a desolate night, here comes entertainment and rest. Neon signs either have a sinister aspect to them, they’re like a lure in the darkness for the lost souls, or morbid, our beloved depart us in hospital beds beneath white neon light, the world of manufacture, not imbedded in candle light or the sun of before, the world of nature. But above all there is something melancholic and felliniesque about them , they give joy to those who are depressed. Just look at this screen shot from Fellini’s The Night of Cabiria (1957), ghostly and essentially sad.
The fact that they are publicity is befitting in our consumerist society where we turn to superficial delights to give us “happiness”. In the verse above “the neon” is a sort of metonymy for this entertainment and publicity, and in the “Narrow streets of cobblestone” we turn these signs into “gods”. Hollywood has become a church for those without spirituality, look at The Neon Demon this year, which explored the occultist and emptiness of that industry. Before people turned to saints for enlightenment, now we walk “‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp” to sit in a dingy seat waiting for the screen to light up. What is important is the fact that neon lights are artificial, they are made chemically. Paul was blinded (for a couple of days) by the sight of Jesus in heaven, is this modern, urban light is that of a false god? Don’t we venerate old hollywood stars who now live on our screens like ghosts? The fake glory of the city of “stars”. Think La La Land whose colour scheme is primary neon lights. This movie is the fairy tale of dreamers who have fallen in love with these lights that represent the success they aspire to. “City of stars / Are you shining just for me? / City of stars / You never shined so brightly”. It’s just what “everybody wants”.
Here’s an idea: we need this false light because there is no god in today’s society? Are humans always inclined to be pulled to the light by something spiritual? La Dolce Vita is the perfect example. In the Trevi fountain, Marcello, the poster boy of the post war generation looking for meaning in superficiality, venerates the star, the new goddess, instead of those ancient ones behind him. I could go on forever about this movie, but the question it asks is: in a world that has gone through such an inhuman war and religion had lost all validity, where do we place our need for spirituality? In intellectualism or in entertainment?
This is what “the neon light” represents, the call to a spiritual satisfaction that will give us “happiness” that religion can no longer give, in a world destroyed by human cruelty.
Are these lights even beautiful? Now the question of beauty is a complicated one, but let’s site Montaigne for the hell of it:
« Chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage »
What this means is that we call barbarism what we do not know, this can be applied to beauty.We consider something beautiful according to what we know to be beautiful, we reject anything that we are not used to, or do not confine in what are society considers to be beautiful. Do we believe the “neon lights” to be beautiful because it is all we know? Are we like Seb and Mia who have grown up watching musicals, and consider those bright lights to be symbols of success? Look at these stills from Singing in the Rain , the ultimate movie of joy, you have to be a psychopath not to like, is the story of dreamers who are also blinded by the god of the entertainment industry:
It’s beautiful, it’s enticing, it’s brilliant, it’s aesthetic, but isn’t it all fake? Will we obtain joy and happiness with this “light”? Some movies play on that aspect of that artificial light, in particular Nicolas Winding Refn who uses this neon colour scheme (particularly in Only god forgives) to visually describe the emptiness of his characters. With The Neon Demon, he asks if our illusion of “stars” in this city of “angels” are actually demons, a lure in this false religion. The still demonstrates the appeal of the brightness contrasted with the danger and the morbidity.
Let’s end with another citation from Simon and Garfunkel’s prophetic song ( “The words of the prophets/Are written on the subway walls”) The sound of silence which has come to describe today’s society.
“When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence”
All this light and brightness that lures us , only to be greeted in despair by “the sound of silence”.
Write what you think below.
Special credit to J J, who inspired me to write this, thanks.