Film, neon and their reciprocal celebration
The annual film festival Berlinale is a highlight of Berlin's calendar and as the symbol of the city, we do not award golden Oscars or Globes, but bears. The festival's electrifying programme encompasses the screening of hundreds of movies in cinemas across the city, as well as an on-going list of events addressing the themes of food, enjoyment and the environment.
In 2016, we were proud to celebrate the magical world of film with neon by producing a neon sign of the Berlinale logo, in the spirit of 20th century cinema's traditional colourful and gleaming signboards.
As a toast to Berlin's premier film festival, we turned the tables and collected a few examples in which it was cinema that celebrated neon.
It is really a pity that film was still black and white in 1927, because one of the first productions coming to mind when thinking about neon in film is Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The 20s were specifically the years that saw neon booming and spreading across America's great metropoles and coincidently we know that in 1927 New York boasted having 650 neon signs.
Lang used neon not only to create a futuristic urban vision, but also in the epic and revolutionary scene of the robot’s transformation into the likeness of the main character, Maria. The set, which required the replication of an entire city in miniature, was one of the most demanding ones ever produced for the time, and the production must just have been mind-blowing.
Though it did not achieve financial success upon its release, Metropolis would become an icon of sci-fi cinema. In occasion of the 90th year since its release, the film was restored and re-issued in an extended version. Kino Babylon hosted Gala Screenings in January 2017 with a live Orchestra accompanying to accompany the silent film – just imagine that opening scene!
One of the films that was arguably influenced most by Metropolis was Tron: the world's first black-lit cartoon, released by Walt Disney in 1982. By then, neon had acquired a clear association with futuristic, technological aesthetics: In the 70s it had been transformed into a weapon by George Lucas as Star Wars's legendary light sabers. A few years later, director Stevel Lisberger and his team came up with the idea of a warrior made of neon, but except his phosphorescent aspect and a name – Tron – he had neither a story nor a setting. It was only later that they decided to set him into a digital game, a reality they characterized through neon dimensions and black backdrops.
1982 also saw the release of Bladerunner, a film that is actually said to have given birth to the aesthetic of the Neon Noir genre, which includes works such as Miami Vice (1984-90), Body Double (1984), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), but also Spring Breakers (2013).
The Neon Demon (2016)
The Neon Noir genre has lately found a strong advocate in director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has experimented with the style in Drive (2012), Only God Forgives (2013) and brought it to sublimation in his 2016 release The Neon Demon.
As a daring psychological thriller set in the L.A. fashion industry, the film has received a lot of contradictory critiques, though one thing is clear: the sinister aesthetic style is smashing it! As the A.V. Club review put it: "Style doesn’t triumph over substance in The Neon Demon. It devours it."
Refn is colourblind, so he can't perceive colour hues unless they are strongly contrasted. This has brought the director to develop a particular affinity for neon, he says: "I grew up in the early ‘80s when neon became a design concept… I've loved neon ever since I was little."
The vibrant colour palette of the film may seem uncustomary for a horror movie, but the effect is astounding: The cruel phosphorescent tints express the disturbingly beautiful and inhumane aspects of the fashion world, while maintaining an unnervingly sinister atmosphere.
Perhaps because of neon's spread in popularity's concurrence with the birth of Hollywood, it is safe to say that neon and film developed a solid relation. Almost a hundred years later, it is fascinating to see how the connection has maintained itself – notwithstanding the enormous changes in technology, style and interests the industry has undergone – and how the correspondence between the two has developed in response to those changes! We are proud and excited to be able to contribute to the evolution of this medium, which has managed to adapt to fascinate generation after generation.