Eyes in the sky: The Vast of Night

17 July, 2020

Throughout the year of 2018, no less than 18 film festivals (Sundance and Tribeca amongst them) have rejected Andrew Patterson’s excellent debut feature, The Vast of Night, and I think I have a hunch why. Its plot line seems to be somewhat corny (close encounters in the New Mexico desert), and its visual style isn’t a very flashy one, either. On the other hand, there’s very few spectators, cinephiles and even film critics and festival curators that are preoccupied with stylistics. The Vast of the Night is structured like an homage-film, which takes us back into a small town called Cayuga through the screen of a black-and-white television set which is broadcasting a show in the vein of The Twilight Zone (and it kicks us out of this universe in the same way, by the end), which kick-starts a series of references to classics of the genre (ranging from Orson Welles to Steven Spielberg).

This side of the film is less important. What’s truly remarkable about Patterson’s debut is the way that it reins in everything from its cinematography to its editing and sound design, which is precisely what transforms a film into a cinematic experience. Ironically enough, the film was released online, without any wide release in cinemas, which can be attributed to its relatively late success in the festival circuit (it was finally selected at least year’s outings of Slamdance and Toronto), on the one hand, and on the other, due to the pandemic, which led to the shuttering of cinemas all across the United States. The critical consensus which emerged after the film’s festival fare probably won’t bring it back to the big screens. I will attempt to analyze the film by concentrating on its formal characteristics, to the detriment of its inter-textual elements, which refer to the B movies and science fiction flicks of the fifties and sixties.

Long journey into the night

Mysterious lights suddenly flicker across the night-sky of a small town buried in the Chihuahuan Desert. The only people who notice them are the few people who aren’t huddled up in the local high school’s gymnasium, attending a basketball match. We don’t get to see them either, because we’re holed up in a small telephone exchange booth with Fay, who ambitiously switches her phone lines as if she’d be juggling four spheres at the same time. But we hear about them and about people who are barricading themselves out of fear, with some of them no longer answering to Fay’s calls. She also catches onto a metallic, pulsating sound in her headset, which she tries to figure out in a call with Everett, a charismatic, teenage DJ, however without any success. Zapping between her desk and Everett’s radio, the first half of The Vast of Night is composed of a series of attempts at discovering the source of the radio wave which was intercepted by Fay, with the help of an anonymous caller who tells stories from the time when he served in the army and was deployed in a top-secret operation by the authorities.

In the second half of the film, an elderly lady calls in and gives the protagonists goosebumps as she recounts the story of her son, who has vanished without a trace. In such moments, the otherwise aesthetically supple film takes a break, in order to give power back to the Word, just as one of the early masterminds of The Twilight Zone and of suspense-based genre films, Richard Matheson, used to do. The same formula (a radio, a DJ, an assistant, sinister events) is used by another independent thriller from 2008 (which, coincidentally, also premiered in Toronto), Pontypool, which however made the mistake of permanently lingering in this state of being a kammerspiel with a boogeyman lingering beyond the walls, which means that, in order to keep a semblance of credibility, the film is required to change its tone into that of a dark comedy.

The Vast of Night isn’t as much interested in thrill-seeking or chills (even though it does, indeed, offer a couple of them) as it is preoccupied with the night itself. It’s almost unnecessary for it to show flying saucers (even though they do appear later on, in a scene that pays tribute to Close Encounters of the Third Kind), because all the lampposts and the hanging lights on the streets of Cayuga look just as hypnotic as an army of UFOs. These, along with the lights shining from behind the windows of the scattered houses light up this town that lies underneath an opaque sky, akin to a black hole that could suck it all up as if it were nothing more than a grain of sand. Beyond these lights lies the possibility of a nightmarish threat, but Patterson prefers to leave this situation in a state of ambiguity, being much more preoccupied with the ways in which he shoots this endless night, with no beginning or end to it.

In the midst of this night, the small-town atmosphere of the American fifties is represented in a retro chic manner, from the shiny luster of convertible cars to the impeccable outfits of the two protagonists, pointy glasses and all. But the director and (co-)screenwriter destabilizes this romantic representation twice. First, when the anonymous radio caller reveals himself to be a man of color, adding that other black soldiers had been co-opted in the same shady operation as he had been (falling sick afterwards, on top of it all) because “nobody would believe them, anyway”. Later on in the film, the elderly lady recounts that the police inquiry surrounding her little son’s disappearance became an inquest into her own person and her parenting skills as a mother. These messages aren’t a sample of dogmatic leftism, but rather, they open up enough space to reveal the mechanisms behind the oft-frilly representations of this era.

Still Vast of Night

The increasing popularity of long single shots

Ever since digital means of recording have expanded into cinema, filmmakers have been ecstatic once they realized its biggest opportunity: the chance to no longer limit a single shot to the span of a single standard film reel (which is approximately fifteen minutes). Even though a long single shot poses numerous logistical difficulties (in relation to the actors, the lighting, the positioning of the camera and so on), the final result can be very moving, meaning that few ambitious directors have resisted its temptation. Single-frame sequences have become much more frequent and complex in the past years, and arguably the most popular and acclaimed director to have successfully used it is Alfonso Cuarón, in films such as Children of Men and Gravity. (Of course, the long single shot is a technique that has a long history, but which was mostly contained in the arthouse sphere.)

After the long single shot gained in popularity, the next natural step was to shoot a “single shot film”, be it naturally (such as Sebastian Schipper’s 2015 film, Victoria) or artificially, by employing so-called “invisible cuts” or other digital seams (like in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 feature, Birdman). Those who had strived for a natural way to obtain this (such as Schipper) had the tendency to use it not just to create a sense of immediacy, but also to achieve somewhat purist ends, such as capturing the sunrise, a moment of the day which implies an essential “force of nature”, something which lies beyond the limitations of filmmaking. Put in other words, it’s something strongly related to the philosophy of neo-realist directors, who cower in the front of nature and its uncontrollable phenomena.

On the other hand, Iñárritu (and many others) have used the long single shot in ways which simply make the experience of watching a film more “intense”. The Mexican filmmaker (who, interestingly enough, is a close friend of Cuarón’s) intended to create exactly the opposite of a realistic experience: by overlaying the camera’s perspective with that of a mind that is slowly losing contact with reality (and which starts believing, for example, that it is capable of flight). In the more recent 1917, British director Sam Mendes wants to offer a profoundly immersive experience of a World War I military expedition. It’s a realistic experience in the key of classical Hollywood, based on the good old notion of suspense. Film critic Andrei Gorzo compares these directors to “megalomaniacal generals”, and I tend to agree with him on the basis of a very simple reason.

By analyzing the recent inflation of “single shot films”, Thomas Flight (who is probably the most exciting cinephile video-essayist working nowadays) notes that, in spite of the (generally illusive) ambitions of obtaining the shot itself, the reasoning behind it is as classical as one can get: the intensification of experience. This intensification can be obtained in several ways. The essay Is the Crazy Long Take in Extraction a Gimmick? analyzes the aesthetic choice in the recent film Extraction (dir. Sam Hargrave, 2020). Flight argues that the multiple, physically impossible camera movements in Extraction (that passes through windows and humps from one building to the other) risk to “eject” the spectator out of its plot-line, rather than “absorb” him. The movie’s artificiality becomes much too obvious – which, of course, also depends on the eyes that are watching it. On the other hand, Flight cites a famous sequence in Children of Men, in which Clive Owen enters a besieged building by running like in a trench, a shot which contains a cut that is so discreet that his brothers thought that the sequence was constructed from a single shot.

All of this begs the following question – still, why is the long single shot used more and more often, to the detriment of other classical means of intensifying a scene? One must admit that, excepting the few neo-realists who are clutching onto the long take based on a deontological rationale (such as the Dardenne brothers, Puiu, Mungiu, a number of Iranian filmmakers) and few modernists who use it to construct new meanings (such as Jude), this seems to be a (re)discovery of the classical Hollywood directors. Of course, some lavish results still appear at times (but maybe not in the good sense of the term) of the long take, coming from the arthouse sphere. One such example would be Long Day’s Journey into Night, which features a 59-minute-long shot with a character exiting a mine and meeting the same woman (his possible early love) over and over again, at a festival in a small Chinese town. But it looks like an artifice that is used in mainstream cinema because it’s the “new black”, a fashionable trick which “captures the audience”, thus turning its usage into a sample of herd mentality, while the repeated use of the same artifice in arthouse cinema, due to the fact that it ostensibly demonstrates technical virtuosity, could be called mannerism (even snobbishness).

Still Vast of Night

In the right place, at the right time

And so, it’s all the more invigorating to discover such a lack of affectation in a debut film. In the Vast of Night, there’s only one shot which sets itself out, in which the camera travels from Fay’s telephone exchange to Everett’s radio, through the streets and between the houses, passing through the full gymnasium and moving just like the camera in Extraction – passing through a window and then slowly descending to ground level. But Andrew Patterson’s choice is justified in terms of dramaturgy. On the one hand, it maps out the geography of the town, which turns to become a character in itself, and the two poles of the plot-line (Fay’s office / Everett’s tiny broadcast room), which had never been juggled with before, but which now will be constantly interchanged. On the other hand, the shot amplifies the sensation that the ensuing events will be experienced by the two characters (and a few other episodic ones) in complete solitude, as the gymnasium has attracted almost the entirety of the little town’s population, which is a pivoting point in the long take conceived by Patterson and his Chilean director of photography, Miguel Ioann Littin Menz.

The time covered by the plot thus receives some clear coordinates: the plot starts about ten to fifteen minutes before the junior basketball match is set to begin, and ends as soon as the townspeople leave the gymnasium. In other words, somewhere between 90 and 105 “real” minutes are compressed in just about 85 minutes of film. One can even approximate the year in which the film is set, seeing as the launch of the Sputnik satellite is mentioned as if it had been a recent event, so that sets us somewhere in 1958 or ‘59.

The continuity of the film’s timeline isn’t, however, sustained by a gigantic long single shot, but through self-effacing means. Between leaving the gymnasium and the telephone exchange, Fay and Everett have an amusing conversation about the inventions of the future, which back then were nothing more than science fiction literature gimmicks (such as self-driving cars and mobile phones, the latter of which Everett dismisses as bollocks). The flow of the dialogue underscores the real duration of the walk, in spite of the cuts. It’s a Sorkinian dialogue in terms of agility, a southern, small-town version of “walk with me!”.

Once we arrive in the two’s little rooms, both characters are shown in one long take (which surpasses five minutes in length) which displays each of them as they’re going about their tasks, especially Fay, as she’s making connections as fast as a little robot set to maximum speed. It’s probably the most gracious way to offer recognition to an actor and the long hours spent preparing for its role, in order to achieve more than looking swell in a cardigan.

As the cosmic threat becomes increasingly present, Patterson uses a style of editing that is intensified through classical means – several shots show Everett reaching for a pen, clicking it and jotting down the details which his radio counterpart offers, creating a sense of agitation before the revelations are disclosed. Similarly, Fay and Everett’s continuous movement while exiting the old lady’s house is broken up in several shots, this time, in order to amplify the sense of Everett’s disorientation: is what they heard earlier really true, or did they just listen to a crazy old hag? And if so, what is there left to do? And so on. It must be said that none of these choices alter the duration of the action itself.

Although the flow of the events is interrupted twice, such as the time when Fay and Everett leave the town in the car of some passerby, the general sensation is of a fluid, yet compact block of time. It’s something which may seem deceptively simple at first glance (as it should), but which necessitated what are most likely mathematical calculations on the part of Patterson and his team.

Patterson’s unemphatic craft has more in common with David Fincher’s, a classical Hollywood director who is obsessed with an art that is both discrete and perfectionist, with achieving “the right cut at the right time”, more than with filmmakers on the firmament of international arthouse fare. Personally, I’m more than curious to see what other experiments these latter directors will put to the test by using the long single shot, even if they’re willing to break away from it, but I’ll most likely be more attracted to the feats of refined, artisan directors like Patterson, who don’t really seem to give a heck about the do’s and dont’s of the festival circuit.

Andrei Bangu Andrei Bangu
Andrei has been writing film reviews since he was 17. He was published for the first time in Observatorul Cultural magazine due to Alex Leo Șerban. He was part of the Cinemagia jury at TIFF 2005 and he publishes film articles on Filmreporter, Liternet. In his free time, he writes screenplays.
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