dir: Andrew Patterson
The Vast of Night is such a tiny, modest and strange little film, that you almost want to hold it in your hands like a hatchling that’s fallen out of its nest to protect it, and it’s like not much else that I’ve ever seen, at least not lately.
It’s set in the late 50s, and everyone’s talking in that gee golly gosh way that apparently they spoke after the war, and dressing like they’re all going to a sock hop or the drug store for a malt shake. But the movie is also bookended with strange television credits as if this is a lost episode of some Twilight Zone-like early television program called Paradox Theatre. Everyone smokes, including teenagers, but I guess that was just the style at the time. The town in which all of this happens is so tiny that the local high school basketball game consumes virtually the whole town. Everyone bar a couple of stragglers are at the pokey school stadium in anticipation of the game.
It’s not even a final or anything. It’s just a game, and these hicks have literally nothing better to do. There were a lot, and I mean a lot of Salvation Army and vintage stores raided to get the ugly ancient clothing necessary to clothe all these extras. None of it looks like fancy hipster costuming, not by a long shot. It’s all just quietly ugly, era appropriate clothing.
And that’s where the movie production’s entire budget possibly went. That and buying one drone with a camera, and probably a Go-Pro, and that’s about it. Just because this is an Amazon Original doesn’t mean Jeff Bezos, he of the costliest divorce settlement in human history, ponied up the cash for this flick. They made it on the scent remaining from the fumes exuded from an oily rag that was set on fire which wafted across to a third rag. But they do an incredible, flat out incredible job pulling something so small and strangely perfect, in its own way, which manages to be familiar but not formulaic in any way.
After all, this flick has a continuous at least ten minute scene where one of the protagonists (Sierra McCormick) does nothing but connect calls at one of those old timey switchboards, and yet the scene remains utterly riveting.
Well, “riveting” seems like a bit of an overstatement. It’s always interesting, though it’s pretty low-key.
This is not a conventionally told story even if many of the elements seem familiar. The opening scenes at the basketball stadium involve a young arrogant chap called Everett (Jake Horowitz) who works at the local radio station chatting rapid fire with a whole bunch of people who are also chatting rapid fire. Not much discussed in this opening (show-offy) bit contributes anything to the story, but I guess it’s trying to establish a time and place, and the various details of town life, how stories spread with in communities, how Everett is competent but an arsehole, and where technology is in this day and age.
The movie feels it’s important to impress upon us what the technological limits are of this day and age. Yes, there are televisions about but they are the first ones, like glowing weird orbs. Radio is king and queen still, with the obligation of the radio station being to record the basketball game and play it just after, so that the crowds who were there and those who weren’t can relive the glory or the shame. Tape recorders, the reel-to-reel ones, not cassettes, are getting smaller and more portable, though they’re still cumbersome. Everett has mastered the form of radio patter, but also abides by the moral and ethical obligations that come with the “power” that he wields.
Local girl Fay (Sierra McCormick) is clearly a bit in awe of Everett and his self-assured ways, to the point where she has recently purchased a portable tape recorder, and wants his help in operating it. This results in Everett taking her around the place and getting her to play reporter, to ask questions, to search for truths people might not want to say, stuff completely out of her wheelhouse. They both look like teenagers, he slightly older, though I’m sure both actors are probably in their 20s.
It’s safer that way.
Fay is a fairly competent person herself, but through these peregrinations with Everett, it’s more her shock at how casually dishonest Everett is with people that her timidity that presents the stumbling block. It even gets her to realise the disparity between the voice and persona he uses on the radio, versus his real voice.
Which one is real? Both? Neither?
I guess it doesn’t matter. During part of the “action” (I use the term sarcastically) she tells him about stuff she read in scientific magazines like Popular Mechanic and such about what the future will bring. This long bit I guess is meant to be ironic, in that some of the stuff, like people having personal phones with screens that are in Colour no less, and driverless cars and underground tube supertrains is meant to recall the wonder with which these troglodytes would greet Our Brave New World now filled with its technological wonders if they ever lived to see it, but really it serves to emphasise how distant then is from the now that we enjoy. And that when you’re trying to understand what’s happening around you, and it’s the 1950s, you use what’s around the best you can.
In the midst of covering a shift on the telephone switchboard, when we think she’s taking a breather, Fay hears a strange sound coming through the telephone wires that also happens to come across the radio, which she switches on to listen to Everett’s program. And from some of the people calling to be connected elsewhere, some other mysterious things are happening. Something in the sky. Phone lines being cut. People going missing. This all transpires in cumbersome and difficult ways, but, when she tries to tell Everett about something strange going on, their brainstorm of playing a recording of the strange sound over the radio, in case someone recognises the sound, surprisingly pays off.
I say ‘surprisingly’ despite the fact that I guess the “plot”, if that’s what you would call what happens here, would grind to a halt if someone didn’t recognize the sound.
For a detective type story, of two amateur sleuths trying to figure out what’s actually happening, really, all that happens is that they sit around, enraptured, listening to other people talk. Large swathes of the movie involve patiently listening to at least two other people talk at length about their connection to the sound.
The caller who calls in talks at length about having been called up for some secret duty after the war, where he and other men just like him had to do something, but not have any part of the task explained to them, to do with something. It’s more specific than that, but still pretty vague. We are given the impression that it’s something to do with a metal, and it emits a sound picked up by radios, but it seems to be a signal sent somewhere.
He tells of many other things, including the illness he suffered from exposure, and, after being disconnected, explains that he and the other people like him were African-American, and he suspects the reason being that had any of them spoken up back in the day, no-one would believe them, because, hey, Black Lives didn’t matter back then, not like they clearly do now given the current administration and the various state police forces with their “kill them on camera and still get away with it” policies.
Fay and Everett aren’t exactly woke, but the story is carefully crafted to make the blustering Everett, for all his casualness with the truth, not enough of a contemporary for the times bigot to let it affect his judgement.
He thinks, he hopes he’s onto a great story, one which, if he captures it right and figures out all the intricacies, but in a responsible and ethical manner, he be propelled from the obscurity in which he labours in a small town in New Mexico, to the big city leagues.
Like, maybe even Albuquerque! Aim for the stars, I say.
It’s strange watching scenes like these in a contemporary movie. What it made me think of was a number of podcasts that have come out over the years that, when well done, run the entire gamut of evocative and compelling story telling, even when it’s fiction masquerading as truth. By which I mean stuff like Welcome to Night Vale, or a short series called The Signal that (I think) was aligned with the This American Life people back in the day, rather than stuff like The Moth, which is people telling a story as a monologue / stand up (almost), in front of an audience.
There are times when people are talking where the screen goes dark for long stretches, because we can just as easily have our eyes closed, and follow along, because we’re just listening anyway, and it doesn’t detract from it. Doesn’t really enhance it either, but you’ve got to make calls when you’re working with a tiny budget. Of course, the thing I’ve left out until now is that those podcasts I’m referring to have a long lineage predating the internet. There used to be a stack of radio shows that had bunches of voice actors playing roles and making radio serials, as they were known, and people loved them because they had fuck all other ways of entertaining themselves.
There was some chap, his name escapes me for the moment, who became famous before directing a film still voted one of the greatest of all time at the tender age of 26, by creating a radio program in 1938 based on a novel by HG Wells, dealing as it does with an alien invasion, that apparently a lot of people thought was real. I know there are stupid people in the world, but the one story I’ve never really believed that much is that people heard this broadcast on their radio and went bugfuckingly crazy. But it’s not for me to debunk urban legends – much more patient and smart people than me, like the ones at snopes.com, are up to the task.
So, what I’m getting at, is that I don’t think that that form of storytelling is a coincidence, and I don’t think the name of the radio station, in large neon letters, being WOTW, is a coincidence either, which, if I haven’t made it clear yet, clearly stands for What, Oh That Wanker?
Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s meant to recall War of the Worlds. And there’s other stuff from The Day the Earth Stood Still as well, in case you were playing bingo, you lucky thing. None of it seems to be done in a nudge-nudge wink-wink ironic kind of way, so it’s not insufferable.
This is a very strange, deceptively simple film, in a lot of ways, with two wonderful performances from the leads, with some virtuoso filmmaking on display, almost to the point of making this a showreel in order to show off directorial and film production skills of director and crew for future work, and I applaud them for it. Very little of that is in service of the story, which quite often is languid and static, but it hardly matters, because in a number of ways the story is told in ways we are not tired of yet that make what could have been hackneyed crap far more enjoyable.
It builds to an ending I still am not sure about, a day after watching it, which was probably the right ending for the story, perhaps even the perfect ending to the story, but it’s one that manages to be right but dissatisfying, surprising yet of a piece with the storytelling, and somehow horrifying, and yet maybe it’s hopeful? I have no idea right now, so at least on that score it’s better and less clichéd than about a 1000 other movies you could care to mention on any streaming service available.
The Vast of Night, a title I admit I don’t even really understand, is such a slow, patient, in some ways delightful curio, that I’m glad I heard about it, glad (eventually) that I watched it, and doubtless it’s the one and only 1950s set science fiction movie I’ll be thinking about for a while to come. Other than trying to figure out how a lot of this was made, including, where the fuck did they find a working switchboard from like 70 years ago?, I will (I hope) be enjoying watching the various talents involved in this make other extraordinary stuff or put in great performances in their future endeavors.
The Vast of Night. Looks tiny. But it’s somehow enormous.
8 times patience is neither a virtue when watching something awful nor a curse when watching something good out of 10
“There’s something in the sky…” – there always is – The Vast of Night