Enter the Void
by Nicholas Russell
The Vast of Night
Dir. Andrew Patterson, U.S.
At the end of the hour-long 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by Howard Koch, Orson Welles gives a short address, more a glorified disclaimer, that begins, “This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be…”
One of the best preserved modern urban myths is the national panic supposedly caused by the program, fashioned as a series of real-time dispatches from journalists, military personnel, and studio news anchors about an alien invasion. Multiple announcements were made before, during, and after the broadcast advertising the show as fictional, including a photo of Welles and the cast published in that day’s issue of The New York Times. CBS issued the following on their network: "For those listeners who tuned in to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time tonight and did not realize that the program was merely a modernized adaptation of H. G. Wells’s famous novel War of the Worlds, we are repeating the fact which was made clear four times on the program, that, while the names of some American cities were used, as in all novels and dramatizations, the entire story and all of its incidents were fictitious."
Still, the idea resonates, bouncing off every late night conversation you’ve ever had with friends about things that are impossible, confessing beliefs in the outlandish—ghost stories, angels, Bigfoot—you never knew you held with such conviction until saying them aloud. Contained within these moments of suspended disbelief is something beyond storytelling or myth. There’s the shared creation of new reality. Cinema takes this creation a step further at the same time that it limits it. It introduces fixed images and sounds that take the place of whatever subjective picture may be conjured when simply listening to someone describe something. The Vast of Night boldly believes in and validates the indelible power of the spoken word; it’s a movie where large swaths of time are devoted to a completely black screen as a voice on the phone recounts memories only fit for late-night conversation.
Set during a busy night in Cayuga, New Mexico, in the 1950s, The Vast of Night is framed as an episode of a fictional Twilight Zone carbon copy called “Paradox Theater.” Through a black-and-white TV screen that soon takes over the frame, we follow Everett, DJ of channel WOTW’s late night radio show, and Fay, a switchboard operator. Both are white teenagers with their sights set on the adult world beyond their small town. With the local high school basketball season starting and nearly the whole town packed into the gym for the first game, Everett and Fay set off into the night to their respective nocturnal posts.
The Vast of Night is debut filmmaker Andrew Patterson’s riff on black-and-white nostalgia, featuring the kinds of quippy fast-paced conversations standard in the ’40s and ’50s, with a fondness for the hand-built and the hand-cranked. This is a film that luxuriates in the mechanical ephemera of the period more than the expected presence of classic cars or vintage costumes. Tools take over, the kind that Ursula K. Le Guin once described as “the patient, obstinate, reliable things that we use and get used to, the things we live by.” Reels of magnetic tape, switchboard plugs and dials, bulky boxes of equipment lugged and hauled with great effort, the static of lost phone connections, the breath of a caller on the other end.
The Vast of Night questions our assumptions about nostalgia, and how much it can reflect reality. In Patterson’s film, authenticity of character is a direct result of narrative artifice. At several points, the action will cut without warning to a scene that exists in the black-and-white TV we entered at the beginning: the audio becomes fuzzy and what’s shown on the disembodied screen seems like a hammed-up, nigh parodic variation on the movie you’ve just been watching. Being offered multiple perspectives on the same people—even when we see them in miniature as characters on a network TV show that advertises itself as cheap science fiction—lends a feeling that they are being observed from a distance. The Vast of Night takes this concept as a kind of thesis: the film’s pleasurable voyeurism is compounded when we realize we’re not the only ones watching events unfold. Over the course of this night, the small town learns that there is something inexplicable and possibly nefarious watching them from the skies.
In the most memorable sequence, almost nothing visual occurs. When Fay picks up a stray noise that interferes with several connecting calls, she rings Everett at the radio station and plays it for him. It’s like nothing they’ve ever heard, and Everett opts to spin a recording of it on the air in the hopes that a listener might recognize it. He even throws in a piece of Elvis’s carpet as a reward. Their first caller comes from across the country, a weary voice belonging to a man who proceeds to recount his involvement in a mysterious military project he and several other personnel took part in. No one knew where they were or why they were there.
As this sequence plays out, the image onscreen slowly fades to black while the man continues to speak. It’s as though we are inside the radio, on the other end of every receiver picking up the broadcast, with nothing but a voice to hang onto. It’s a bold directorial choice, sustained for the better part of five minutes. After the audience, along with Everett and Fay, has been drawn into this stranger’s story, the call gets dropped. Fay and Everett scramble to get him back and when they do, another revelation comes. The stranger neglected to share that he is Black, as were the other personnel of his detail, and that every single one of them has gotten sick because of their exposure to whatever it was they were hired to build. Labor, at the expense of health and safety. These facts, he says, would likely result in Everett’s listeners turning off the radio, an opinion Everett agrees with. But this won’t be the last marginalized person with whom these two teenagers speak; the story ultimately hinges on their ability to counteract the unexamined prejudice they harbor, which causes them to resist listening to other people who have been ostracized for their beliefs, their age, or their race.
The Vast of Night, which by no means poses itself as a work of revisionist history, nevertheless allows people, such as the Black caller, to speak at length for themselves. At this point in the film, I thought of the case of Isaac Woodard, a real-life Black army veteran who was beaten to blindness and within an inch of his life by police on his return trip home from overseas; it took the white press and white celebrities to draw attention to his case. Among these white saviors was Orson Welles, who read Isaac Woodard’s affidavit on the radio and mounted a crusading, righteous screed against the police and the justice system for not charging or naming the officer involved. “You’re going to be uncovered! We’re going to blast out your name!” The incident is considered a feather in Welles’s cap, often contextualized now in retrospective articles as a brave and admirable gesture. It’s also the kind of sweeping, dramatic action only a white titan of industry would have been able to get away with.
If it elided its racial commentary, The Vast of Night would still be a movie of nuance. This is independent filmmaking at its most agile, and I suspect the afterlife of the movie will be long, whether because of its moody look, the quality of its young actors, the atmosphere it creates, or the originality of its concept. But after the first 10 minutes, it’s clear that The Vast of Night isn’t really interested in special effects or visual spectacle. It’s concerned instead with the formulation of stories and their transmission over leagues of time and space, over the course of one night and over the course of years, in how stories accrue power, and how that power is wielded.
“So goodbye, everybody,” Welles says at the end of the War of the Worlds broadcast. “And remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian, it's Halloween.” Welles lets himself off the hook a little too easily in a way that director Andrew Patterson refuses to. This is make believe, sure, that’s how these stories start. Still, it takes the right voice to speak them into existence, granting these stories gravitas or a kind of imperfect authenticity. Patterson takes that to heart. He simply believes more people should be allowed to try.