Cosmic Switchboard

I watched The Vast Of Night (2019).

It starts as we track in to what seems to be a US suburban home of the 1950s.

We hear the TV and a series of images at the start of a new broadcast.

V/O: You are entering the realm between clandestine and forgotten. A slipstream caught between channels. The secret museum of mankind. The private library of shadows – all taking place on a stage forged from mystery, and found only in a frequency caught between logic and myth. You are entering PARADOX THEATER. Tonight’s episode: THE VAST OF NIGHT.

Although this framing has been compared to The Twilight Zone, it reminds me rather more of One Step Beyond, whose opening emphasised it was giving you a glimpse of incomprehensible reality: “The amazing drama you’re about to see is a matter of human record. You may believe it, or not… but the real people who lived this story, they believe it – they know. They took that one… step… beyond…”

The screen continues with the opening scenes of life in Cayuga, New Mexico, switching to the High School at which a major league game is to be played at night. In the car park outside, the monochrome of the TV set image shifts in to widescreen colour image of the action, and the camera follows around after the main characters: Everard Sloan, the smart young kid with a job of late night DJ at local radio station WOTW, and his best friend girl Fay Crocker, who has a night time job on the local telephone switchboard. Everard is also goofing around with the other guys at school.

The camera trails along after the couple as far as they get to the switchboard where Fay is to start her work. Along the way we hear them chatter about the amazing new technology they’ve read about in magazines – superfast bullet trains will be a thing by 1970, but the idea of handheld personal phones with mini-televisions by the 21st century seems too farfetched for Everard.

Fay’s arrival at the switchboard is one of the occasions for the shift back to the monochrome TV image of the action, after an interlude of black screen. There is a logic behind these moments: they occur when we break connection with either of the two central figures, to do a fast scene-switch or speeded up montage of actions from angles, or to introduce a new element.

Once the dialogue with her co-worker is over, we revert back to in-universe Fay on her own in multicolour.

Again, when Everard starts listening to the story coming in from his caller Billy, we go to the TV screen image of a radio playing these words somewhere else, and a break to black, and then back to Everard in the studio.

And also in the “Run, Fay!” sequence – Fay is in colour in her switchboard, but then moving fast through a broken string of perspectives, so goes to TV screen image, only colourising when she moving inside her family home.

The mystery occurring mostly off-screen concerns strange extraterrestrial presences around the town, which may have been going on for some time. There have been flickering lights in the switchboard, and a strange electronic oscillator sound on one channel, which Fay gets Everard to replay on his broadcast. Mentioned from the start are strange problems with wiring at the High School which are variously explained away as due to animals biting through wires, but perhaps they weren’t.

Everard’s broadcast of the weird electronic sounds inspire a caller from Billy, who relates how he was employed with other black and Mexican soldiers to work on secret installations involving strange craft that also made the sounds. Billy only mentions he’s black once he has Everard’s trust, and he says he was told by his CO that his group were employed for the work as they were less likely to be believed. He’s telling his story now as he’s ill and he thinks his previous assignment was to blame.

Also ready to come forward and speak is old Mabel Blanche, who wants to see her son again after he vanished into space, she thinks he was taken away by the beings in the strange craft, that have been visiting Earth for a long time. What is the TV show playing in the background, could it be the play we are watching now? Hard to make out.

Perhaps these characters are real in their own world, in parallel to their fictional presentation. Or perhaps someone is interpreting their fantasy as a coded message of what is actually going on in 1958/9 (it is stated this is after Sputnik has been launched). Or the broadcast is a fiction that is blurring into a reality in real time – we should note the obvious fact that the radio station is an acronym of War Of The Worlds, which was given an infamous broadcast by Orson Welles at a time when America was also worried that world war was imminent. In a rather stagey way, lots of people mention seeing something strange in the night sky but we never get a glimpse until the very climax.

In the end these characters disappear, which they would have done anyway.

3 thoughts on “Cosmic Switchboard

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