THE VAST OF NIGHT
October 2, 2020
In a story reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), this film about strange sounds emanating from an unusual audio frequency, heard in a small town of New Mexico, is deceptively simple. It could be better understood when combined with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019).
An American thriller-drama-fantasy film directed by Andrew Patterson, presented at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019 and released for theaters and streaming in May of 2020
(This is a spoiler alert: do not read this section if you want to follow the plot only at the screening of the film).
In the fictitious small town of Cayuga, New Mexico, in the fifties, a teenage switchboard operator, Fay Crocker, hears unusual and strange noises emanating from an unknown source from her work station. She soon alerts her friend Everett Sloan, the local radio disk jockey host, on these strange occurrences, and they begin their search to uncover the mystery, by first having the radio listeners hear the strange sounds.
Their search leads them to listen to a caller who recognizes the sound in question. Billy, the caller, says he has heard the sound before, when employed by the US army to build super-secret installations to protect a mysterious vehicle, possibly from outer space. Those employed in this construction were later found to have respiratory and radiation health issues, and all those employed in this task were black or Mexican.
Another phone call leads the pair of young detectives-investigators to senior citizen Mabel Blanche, who also recognizes the sound. When the sound was heard by her, she was still a relatively young single mother. Her son, Hollis, who had closer contact with the beings behind the unusual sounds, disappeared, presumably kidnapped by these beings from the sky while still young, never to be found again. Hollis’ father, Mabel learns, had had contact with these strange vehicles, and he died prematurely, possibly from electric and radiation contamination.
Mabel tells the would-be investigators she has had a lifetime to reflect on these events and the disappearance and kidnapping of her son. She offers a quite detailed analysis of what she believes is at stake in these curious and strange events.
In Mabel Blanche’s opinion, these strange visitors from the sky “sway people to do things and, and think in certain ways- so that they stay in conflict, focused on themselves – so that we’re always ..cleaning house, or losing weight, or dressing up for other people…I’ve seen good people go bad and smart people go mad…”
THE MOVIE SHRINK’S INTERPRETATION
There are many avenues to interpret this deceptively simple story.
Under the cover of out of space visitors, it could be a description of, and comment on, the fifties, where we could find, side by side, a very conventional “buttoned-up conservativism” and conformism, on the one hand, and television shows such as Rod Serling’s “ TheTwilight Zone”, where imaginative and anarchic stories were presented on regular television, on the other hand. Part of this view is offered by The Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw, with his usual perceptive eye for what is important. Such were, indeed, the contradictions of the fifties in America.
In the Movie Shrink’s view, there could be still more to this significant film.
It would not be too far-fetched to propose that this film is also about America’s continuing adventure with all manner of media and communication, or as Bradshaw describes it, “America’s fear and excitement at the burgeoning power of media and mass communication”.
In the first sequences of the film, as the small town’s high school prepares for the local basketball game, there are a lot of technical challenges for the broadcasting of the game, like communication wires destroyed by rats and other animals in the school’s buildings, or tape recording issues caused by limited finances and limited space on the tape recording device. To sum up, there are many hardware problems and issues at stake.
But the problems identified by Mabel Blanche have more to do with fundamental problems and issues. How are media and media communication going to change us and how we interact and live in society? As Mabel describes them, those beings in the sky want us to be separate, even in conflict, focused on ourselves exclusively.
Could those “people in the sky” be in fact our own evolving media landscape? In the fifties, the structural social changes from changes in our communication apparatus had not yet happened, the problems were essentially hardware challenges, as in the opening scenes of the film. But Mabel Blanche’s description on what is to come is more than hardware problems or challenges.
Some film critics of this film have thought that the first twenty minutes of the film appeared too long and more or less related to the rest of the film. That is not the view of the Movie Shrink. Indeed, the opening scenes, full of lively dialogue, with opinions expressed and counter-opinions immediately following, are an essential part of the film.
These lively dialogues are very interactive by nature, very much “give and take”, live and immediate, with the participants in physical contact with one another.
THE SHRINK’S LARGER VIEW
This film is better understood by comparing it with Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood (2018-2019).
In the Movie Shrink’s view, both these films take us to a long-gone period, the fifties and sixties, where interactions and dialogues were gentler and more civil, where people interacted with people they could meet physically. The media landscape was not designed to make people “stay in conflict”, as Mabel Blanche described to the would-be investigators, reminding us of our current media trends, found in good part in the intense and hostile exchanges through social (and a-social) media.
Not all interpretations in the Movie Shrink will be drawn from media interpretations or from Marshall McLuhan inspired analysis. But both A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) and The Vast of Night (2020) are better understood through this perspective.