Decoding is arguably the most important step in the communication process, because in spite of the very human proclivity to never shut up, all the communicating we think is happening is pointless if the decoding, or listening, rather, fails. A message is conjured from thoughts by the sender who encodes what they need to say via a channel to their desired receiver who then, if all prior stages of the communication process are successful, will be able to effectively and clearly decode the initial message of the sender and thus establish feedback beginning the process all over again. All that to say: to be a good decoder, requires that we’re good listeners.
Furthermore, listening is so important that there’s actually an International Listening Association headquartered in Belle Plaine, Minnesota that specializes in, well, keeping people educated on being better listeners, and its 27 member committee from eight states has met yearly since 1979. And if you need to hone your listening skills—with each of us with a smartphone in our hand, it couldn’t hurt—University of Minnesota professor of rhetoric, the late Dr Ralph Nichols, a.k.a., the “Father of Listening,” published the one-stop-shop, inspired title Listening Is A 10-Part Skill in the July 1957 issue of Nation’s Business, and it’s available for free in PDF format at listen.org.
And speaking of listening, it happens to be the theme at the heart of the new Amazon Prime sci-fi flick The Vast of Night. Framed as an episode of a made-up anthology TV show called Paradox Theater, a la The Twilight Zone, the film is centred around one night in the 1950s, in fictional Cayuga, New Mexico as the town gathers for the first high school basketball game of the season. Teenage pals Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), the local radio disc jockey for station WOTW, and Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), the town’s evening switchboard operator, soon set out to investigate some strange signals that are flickering the lights and interrupting their communications-centric vocations.
If I’m being an effective communicator, I’m telling you only what I want you to decode, thus attempting to prevent spoiling the movie’s climax for you. That said, the communicator in me knows you’ve probably seen enough science-fiction to know where this movie is going, and you’ve likely already decoded that what we’re dealing with is a case of alien invasion. And while it’s easy to love aliens and spaceships and to see all the three-headed, face-splitting horror and mind-bending, existential mystery that typically ensues, this film, like a few other terrific genre films of the past few years, is a lesson in restraint and practices what it preaches by asking the viewer to do a lot of listening.
As a communicator using film as his channel for sending the listening-themed message we’re all intended to decode, first-time director Andrew Patterson stages a very bold, successful feature that demands more from our ears and our brains, ironically, in a medium historically intended for the eyes. We are quickly asked to leave our eyes out of this film, as it begins with a couple of very long takes with the camera literally following behind the main characters—we hardly see their faces—and we soon realize we’re being coaxed into actually doing more listening. Patterson ups the ante by making listening more difficult, causing us to listen harder, by avoiding the usual more theatrical performances that have clear succinct dialogue, and doubling-down on a very realistic, very Hawksian (or Altmanian) approach, with lots of overlapping dialogue and conversations that may or may not mean something in the context of the film. The point is, we’re listening.
It’s only when Fay is at the switchboard connecting calls (and listening to Everett on the radio), that we finally get a good close-up of one of our main characters. And even then, in the middle of a solid nine-minute take, as Fay hears the mysterious signal and patches in with callers and other switchboard operators to try and figure out what’s going on, in spite of this intense close-up, we are doing nothing but listening with edge-of-our-seat intensity.
Around halfway into the film, Everett has re-broadcast the strange sound heard over the phone lines and takes a caller who seems to know something about it. Patterson goes for broke with the listening theme and literally removes all visuals from the screen for extended moments and we are forced to listen intently to the caller’s disturbing story over a black screen!
Patterson doesn’t let up even when Everett and Fay go to an elderly woman’s house to get her account regarding the mysterious, clanky, metallic sound, and with another very long couple of takes, she tells her story in a dimly-lit profile shot. We only finally see her whole face when she pleads to go with them to find the sound’s origin, for reasons a good communicator like myself won’t share so not to decode spoilers.
It’s fun to see these actors work so proficiently with tech and equipment from the 1950s that we know they’ve probably never touched before a day in their lives. Patterson, who co-wrote the film under the pseudonym James Montegue with Craig W. Sanger, demands a lot from his main duo as they pull switches, plug cables, load film, and reel tape and look like they know what they’re doing all while often performing very long takes of dialogue. And as for the clickity-clack that tends to accompany most 1950s tech, it’s just one more layer for us to listen through to get to the heart of what’s going on. There’s also horns, crowds, tape-recorders, and Fay even tells Everett about an article she read that theorized what we now know as the ever-present extension of ourselves, the smartphone. This arguably functions more as a sending channel than a decoding one—or one that at the very least hinders both processes—and is perhaps a subtle backhanded comment by Montegue (Patterson) and Sanger on the failure of modern communication.
Not only is Patterson’s demand for us to listen, or decode, symbolically placed, but the two testimonials in the film from caller Billy (Bruce Davis) and the elderly woman Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer) are nearly begging to be heard, actively asking for our main characters to perform that time-honored, essential step in communication to decode. And what’s even more interesting is that these stories are in desperate need to be heard from culturally disenfranchised people of the time—Billy is an elderly black man, and Mabel is a single mother who has lost her son. So if you want to dig even deeper into the subtext here, the film suggests a call-to-action message to decode from those in need without beating us over the head with it.
In the final act, Everett and Fay take a pretty weird car ride with a couple of friends, and end up in a clearing outside Cayuga and discover what they suspected all along has been behind the strange sounds that have highjacked an otherwise normal evening. Ultimately, Patterson continues science-fiction’s longtime collaboration with broadcasting that began way back in 1938 with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater On The Air’s radio production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Note the call letters of the station where Everett works: WOTW. And like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey posits our infancy in the cosmos, in spite of all our tech designed to enhance our ability to communicate, The Vast of Night suggests humankind’s struggle to decode amongst ourselves and our inadequacy to decode in the cosmic theatre.
Words by Lucas Hardwick.