The Vast of Night, the debut film from Andrew Patterson, is a 1950s fantasia, starting with a slow zoom into a mid-century television set, which flickers on to broadcast a Twilight Zone-styledstory that unfolds in the fictional New Mexico town of Cayuga over a single evening. Based loosely on the Kecksburg UFO Incident and the Foss Lake Disappearances, the story revolves around two teenagers – Fay Crocker, played by Sierra McCormick, who operates the town’s only telephone switchboard, and Everett Sloane, played by Jake Horowitz, who runs the only radio station in Cayuga. However, on the night in question, they don’t have much to do, since the whole town is away from their radios and telephones, watching the basketball final at the local high school. Ensconced in the switchboard and radio station, Fay and Everett start to pick up an unusual sound “bouncing around the valley” – an eerie transmission that comes from much deeper and higher in the vast night than they could initially have imagined.
Lots of this film reminded me of the iconic eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, partly because the premise is so similar, but also because Patterson seems interested in the same analog gothic effects as David Lynch and Mark Frost. The two main characters are affiliated with radio and the telephone, while we’re introduced to them through a conversation about Fay’s latest purchase – a portable cassette recorder that she first uses to interview people about the basketball game. Patterson’s camera also moves through the town like an analogy signal, relying on long takes, both static and mobile, to take us through the drama. While the film isn’t shot in one take, it often feels like it is, since we rarely cut from one spot to another, instead flowing smoothly from one part of the town to the next. In the early scenes, Patterson connects this camera fluidity to the car culture of the 1950s, dodging and weaving as we follow Fay and Everett around every parked car outside the high school gym. None of the characters are ever too far from a car – and all the cars in the town are unlocked, meaning that Fay and Everett can hop into one whenever they want, as can Patterson’s camera itself.
In fact, this camera is so fluid that it often seems to be operating on a different plane from Fay and Everett, who are somewhat discorrelated from its sweeping motions. In the early scenes their dialogue is almost entirely drowned out by the patter of background voices, and even when they do break away from the gym their delivery is almost screwball in its density – words always slightly overlapping, conversation always occurring at mild cross-purposes. After a while, their dialogue feels like its also unfolding remotely, at one remove from their physical interactions, like a radio broadcast or a telephone call. Even when they’re walking side by side, they converse with the slight relaxation of – and oblivion to – inflection that you tend to see when one or both parties aren’t physically present. Conversely, Fay and Everett only seem genuinely close, or in direct communication, when they retreat back to the telephone switchboard and radio booth – the only point where Patterson moves away from his signature sequence shots to something more like conventional cross-editing. Despite all the bravura camera work, then, The Vast of Night often feels like a radio play, or a radio play remediated as a fictional podcast, especially when Patterson periodically cuts to black. As eerie as they are, then, the camera effects are slightly beside the point for long periods of the film, serving mainly to elaborate a visual field that the film itself won’t quite navigate for us.
To that end, Patterson never quite differentiates Fay and Everett from the murky darkness of the New Mexico night, opting for occluded perspectives and long shots that make it difficult to fully make out their faces, let alone their expressions. We don’t really see their faces at all in the first act, and they remain fairly fugitive in the second and third acts as well, to the point that I’m not so sure I could identify the actors or characters if I saw them outside of the film. While the scenes in the gym are brightly lit, we just spend long enough inside the gym for the town to seem doubly gloomy, and more difficult to discern – especially because the outside lights are just few and far enough between that they contour the darkness further instead of illuminating it, shining so brightly that you have to squint to make out anything near them.
All those factors make the night extremely evocative here – a possibility rather than a place, suffused with smoky, misty ambience, and poised halfway between colour and black and white cinematography. It’s a vision of the analog ether – the murky sense of an “out there” so expansive that it collapses into outer space, much as 50s cinema was obsessed with the science fiction hovering at the other end of the line, broadcast, socket or outlet. More specifically, this is an analog ether that converges telephones, radios and the emergence of television, much as the action (and the town) is triangulated between the switchboard, the studio and the television broadcast that perpetually flickers over the action, reminding us at regular intervals that we’re watching this all on a mid-century black-and-white television too.
The fact that Patterson has to use television as a framing device reinforces that television has not entirely colonised the world within the film – although that’s not to say that there isn’t already a proto-televisual surrogate in place. While the townsfolk are mainly driven by telephone and radio technology, they’ve abandoned both on this particular night for a more compelling mass spectacle – the basketball game – that is presented as different in both kind and degree from how they normally gather and communicate. Not only is the gym the only bright space in the film, and the only place where we glimpse a crowd, but it ushers in the most extravagant spectacles – either when we are in it, and follow the camera as it cruises by cheerleaders and basketballers, or when we are approaching it and receding from it, when it becomes a fulcrum for the most extravagant tracking-shots in the entire film. In effect, Patterson imagines the town as a single connective continuum that keeps looping the camera around the gym, and the two main characters with it, even as they try to come up with a mobile technology capable of bringing radio and broadcast closer into the gym’s orbit – first Fay’s portable tape recorder, and then a portable camera that Everett brings from his home.
When Fay and Everett first hear the mysterious noise, then, it’s as portent of television, much as the aliens behind it also presage the arrival of television as a force that’s both unfamiliar and domestic at the same time. Hence the framing device at the start of the film, when the camera pans towards a mid-century television placed like an alien object in the middle of a modern living room, as well as Patterson’s occasional interludes when he zooms back to the grainy televisual image, in the form of flickers around the edges of the image that end up converging with the alien crafts. Insofar as the aliens have any special attributes, they correspond to those of television – they operate most effectively when people are separated from one another, but when they also yearn for connection, whether because they live in the country, or because they’ve just returned from a proto-televisual spectacle, like the basketball game at the gym. Similarly, the aliens apparently prepare their targets with an “advanced radio broadcast” sent directly to their houses late at night, and deliver their content from satellites, meaning that “free will is impossible with them up there.” We learn all this by way of a monologue from Mabel Blanche, played by Gail Cronauer, who provides her insights as Patterson pans in past the only television we ever see in the film, as if to suggest that the televisual aliens she fears are already starting to colonise the Cauyga night.
When the aliens do arrive, Fay and Everett first glimpse them through a television-shaped hole in the trees that appears to have a cinematic-styled projection beamed across it, but at too oblique and unusual an angle for this spectacle to be understood in exclusively cinematic terms either. Similarly, when the UFO arrives, it consummates the spatial logical of the town, appearing as a vast swathe of darkness whose lights are a little too disparate to illuminate the whole. With the exception of a brief and beautiful long shot of the spacecraft, Patterson represents it by visual analogy with the spools on Fay’s cassette, as if to converge the UFO with the televisual horizon that the two teenagers have been inchoately trying to articulate. In the very last shot, the camera comes closer to the ground than any of the previous tracking-shots, ending with Fay and Everett’s final footprints, which end abruptly in front of their tape recorded, now buried by the detritus left in the spaceship’s wake. These are the last footprints before television, and sure enough the film now shifts back to the televisual framing device, ending, like a true 1950s television broadcast, by crediting the teleplay before anything else.
The television, as an object, has become thoroughly enmeshed with digital culture in recent years – this was an Amazon Prime release – that it’s quite uncanny to see it embedded back in mid-century analog culture as it is here. Again, this reminded me of the electrical gothic of Twin Peaks: The Return, but there’s also more than a hint of the early Steven Spielberg in the cool blues that dominate Patterson’s palette, and prevent it fully capitulating to the black and white contours of the Cauyga nightscape. It’s the kind of film that Spielberg might be making if he was still working on a limited budget – or if he had allowed himself to add a slightly more sinister edge to E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Rather than simply revising the 80s period drama, The Vast of Night feels like a missive from a slightly alternative media history, meaning it can pull off a succinct and cryptic ending while still feeling beautifully resonant – and indeed works best as an evocative fragment, like the noise that haunts Fay and Everett.