Iwas in film school before I took a career in the high-octane world of purchasing pipe and paint. Yep, everyone settles. Dreaming of what might have been, remembering good times, in short, nostalgia, can be our escape. For me it’s always been nostalgia for the 50s.
That nostalgia is one of the things that drew me into the indie film The Vast of Night, which takes place in 1958 New Mexico. Writer/director Andrew Patterson1 centers the story on Fay and Everett, two high schoolers with night jobs. This particular night, everyone in town is at the high school basketball game while geeky Fay works the telephone switchboard and charismatic Everett works as DJ of the small-town radio station. When weird sounds come through the switchboard, followed by reports of objects hovering above the ground, Fay alerts Everett to broadcast the stories and sounds over the airwaves. Callers begin to corroborate UFO sightings, which leads Fay and Everett on the adventure of their young lives.
Unhealthy Nostalgia: No Time Like the Past
Nostalgia is time travel of the mind. Growing up in the 80s, I was influenced by films set in the 50s like Back to the Future and The Sandlot. And having conservative parents who grew up in the 50s meant the radio played oldies and Friday nights were for trips to A&M Video to rent 50s movies. By high school I was dressing like a greaser and watching Forbidden Planet and The War of the Worlds. I felt out of place, like I should have been born thirty years earlier. My spirit of restlessness said I would have been a better version of myself there. So I escaped into reruns of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.
The Vast of Night (TVoN) begins with a clear homage to The Twilight Zone and continues with well-written storytelling and beautiful cinematography. The techie in me thrilled at Fay carrying a “cutting edge,” bulky but portable tape recorder. Or watching the wires get manually transferred on the telephone switchboard. And emotionally I appreciated the way everyone seemed to not just show adults respect but had the ability to listen to other’s opinions. Or the sense of community at the basketball game. But with this film, things were different than the typical nostalgia that often turns me melancholy about the present.
Amazingly, as I watched these moments unfold on film, I wasn’t escaping into unhealthy nostalgia; I was simply enjoying a time long gone. I appreciated the artistic hand, but I didn’t mourn living in 2020. And that’s saying something for how much 2020 seems to hate humanity. So, what happened? How did I overcome unhealthy nostalgia?
It wasn’t some special cantrip I did while watching the film; I wasn’t even aware I had a problem with unhealthy nostalgia. It came down to a couple things that you’ve heard a hundred times: reading my Bible and praying. As monotonous as that may sound, there was healing in those disciplines; I guess if we believe God can help us, there’s a reason we have spiritual clichés—because they work. What was interesting about the prayer was that I’d been praying for God’s will to be done. Again, I didn’t know I should be praying for my media escapism.
I’d read passages like Haggai 2:1–9 before; heck, as a pastor, I’ve even taught on them, but now the verses took on new dimensions. Yes, the implications of Scripture are “a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.” But it’s not “of the imagination”; it’s real, and accessible to us only through reading God’s Word. In that passage of Haggai, we read that older men were so fixated on what the past temple had been like they couldn’t hear God telling them to build a new one. When we pray for God’s will to be done and seek His word, He will reveal the problems we’re unaware are eating us alive. God is outside of time, but He takes the time to work with us on our timeline. He delineates the linear. I can be like Norma Desmond and fixate on the past and the handful of issues in front of my face, but I’ll miss God’s ability to make the future awesome. The best days are yet to come!If we struggle believing the best is yet to come, the first step is acknowledging that not all nostalgia is healthy.
If we struggle believing the best is yet to come, the first step is acknowledging that not all nostalgia is healthy. If you find yourself romanticizing the past, I recommend checking this psychologist’s advice.2 But these suggestions just get the conversation started. TVoN didn’t give me the freedom—Jesus did—but the film was the catalyst for my recognition of nostalgia’s double-sidedness. The balance was an ability to geek out on the past while trusting God to create good things for the future. A recognition the earth is a training ground for Heaven. It’s logical: only when I truly looked toward Heaven and “storing my treasure there,” did I escape from nostalgia’s detrimental downward spirals of frustration, loneliness, unthankfulness, anxiety, and depression.
I had escaped the escapism of movies and analog devices and rose-colored unrealistic expectations of a world that had never existed… so was God done? Or did TVoN have other lessons to teach?
Device Distraction: A Thing About Machines
As you may have guessed, the thriller did have another lesson, and it was around those same distractions. Fay and Everett use wired audio equipment. They are tethered to the switchboard and microphone. But they have that bulky analog tape recorder. And they put it to good use, recording the weird sounds, interviewing people, and giving their own accounts. For all the metaphoric and literal tethers in their lives, the portable recorder provides freedom. The device never gets in the way of the adventure.
For us, living in the digital world, we’ve tethered ourselves to the very devices that are supposed to give the freedom of portability. If we don’t enjoy entertainment as much as we used to, it may be our own fault, as multi-device use (for example, being on your phone while “watching” TV) logically seems like we’re more efficient with our time, but that’s not true. Studies show we may be permanently damaging our brains with an inability to focus3 and many experts say it takes 20 minutes to properly refocus after one distraction to any task.4 There’s no DeLorean to get that time back.
As the CAPC Seeing and Believing podcast says, TVoN needs to be watched as if it’s an actual 50s film. You have to pay attention.5 It assumes you’ll be involved, putting the pieces together. The brilliance is that the very patience in empathy Patterson is asking us to give to the story, is reinforced by the story. Early on Everett teaches Fay not to settle for just being in proximity to people, but to be involved, to pay attention, to infer. And as the story progresses, we see them live this empathy out.
That motivation and empathy drives the duo into something exciting and much different than their sleepy town. If that adventure leads to meeting extraterrestrials what would happen? Would they welcome alien abduction as an escape from their boring town? Would they keep it a secret? What escapism are we looking for? Okay, maybe we’re not holding “take me away” signs like in Independence Day, but when we read a novel or watch media or play RPGs or listen to music, are we escaping?
What are we escaping? The now. The monotony. Being held hostage in a group text. The loneliness. God put a healthy desire for eternity in each of our hearts (Philippians 3:17–21; Hebrews 11:16, 12:22–24) so nostalgia, timelessness, escape, even time travel, all have their place. But where it goes wrong is our desire for unhealthy balance.
We should be living in the moment, however that makes sense for our specific situations. This whole epiphany started with a film, so I won’t say throw out the screens—just maybe turn them off once in a while. Don’t let the device get in the way of the adventure. Embrace that panicky boredom we all feel when we experience a dreaded internet and cable outage. Be intentional in sitting, device free, in silence and wait for God. Be intentional in deeper conversations with others. The depression and anxiety and loneliness can be replaced by peace. So, how can we slow down and teach our next generation to enjoy a slower pace in 2020 and beyond?
The Pace of Life: Like Little Hotdogs through a Garden Hose
The pacing of TVoN is unique. The film is a slow burn but the first thirteen minutes feel fast-forwarded. Some scenes are fast, and some slow. (When my kids said they enjoyed the film, my hope was restored in humanity.) TVoN is like a gateway into the dialogue-heavy, slower-paced cinema of the past. It gave my kids the patience to sit through Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (free on Prime) and Fincher’s Social Network (of course coupled with Aaron Sorkin’s superb prose) (on Netflix). It has been many years since I was excited about cinema like my film school days. I felt the drudgery of COVID and work and missing community at church melt away. I re-watched David Fincher’s film Zodiac (which was a direct influence on TVoN) and loved the beautiful cinematography. I appreciated TVoN even more. One amazing scene is a shot of Fay that lasts nine minutes, forty seconds. Another is Cinematographer Miguel I. Littin-Menz’s incredible four-plus minute steady-cam tracking shot.6
That beauty made me think of God and His beautiful creation, and the film’s pacing reminded me of life’s pace. Sometimes God gives me a lot to do, sometimes I’m supposed to wait on Him. When I read, “Be still, and know I am God,” I can miss Psalm 10’s context. It describes the beauty of nature, yet sometimes a creation in chaos. And it is God alone who can bring peace. But the small part we play, not just to help our anxieties but to also help others, is to “be still.” To be blunt: “Sit down and shut up.” (That sounds a lot like being freed from the past, getting rid of our distractions and sitting in silence, as we talked about prior to this, huh?)
And that recognition of God’s beauty and God’s pacing is the only thing that will get me through life. While some sit in quarantine and others try to conduct normal lives but can’t because everything is closed and our kids have to go to school online and people are getting laid off and there are BLM protests and cries for police reform and politicians executing smear campaigns, I need God’s pacing and beauty. Sometimes life feels like slow-mo and sometimes it’s fast-forward. Sometimes it’s as dark as TVoN’s scene transitions (and with a title like that, the transitions are rightfully pitch black) and sometimes life’s as bright and hopeful as a high school gymnasium with thrilled basketball fans.
When watching TVoN’s characters empathize and relate, I realized I desperately want my kids to learn patience in empathy. It’s one way to escape the “me-centric” worldview but it also keeps them from the danger of simply settling for doing empathetic actions. Instead they’ll learn to strive for a broken heart for the brokenhearted, regardless of whether others see it. And it saves me from publicly chastising them as “whitewashed tombs.”
What’s really interesting about God’s beauty and pacing, is they point us toward Heaven. I find environmental issues, socio-economic injustice, human trafficking, racism, mental illness, political breakdown, and all the stuff I care about are most successfully healed when driven by the hope of Heaven. Not The Good Place, but the biblical, literal place.
Earlier I mentioned, the earth is a training ground for Heaven. I’ve known that truth for years but God brought it home when I read C. S. Lewis’s answer to why we have to learn virtues such as bravery if there is no danger in Heaven, or why we need to practice justice if there is no discrimination in eternity. Lewis answers, “The point is not that God will refuse your admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character: the point is that if people have not got at least the beginnings of those qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ‘Heaven’ for them—that is, could make them happy with the deep, strong, unshakable kind of happiness God intends for us.”7
Ultimately, it’s caring about others more than ourselves. And that’s why Everett’s instructions to Fay on empathy and involvement and deeper conversations need not only be applied to ourselves, but also our children. Since the Western world lacks a character formulation mechanism, we must help others. When I start behaving like that, everything starts lining up. I get the peace beyond understanding coupled with a tangible understanding of, and acceptance of, the slo-mo parts of life, and the bits that feel like fast-forward.
Not a Spaceship from Another Planet, Just Another Time
In the end, Fay and Everett rush to one of the sightings with a camera, the audio recorder, and Fay’s baby sister. As I mulled over why the writers decided on those three things, I saw connections with my personal revelations. A still camera takes a picture to capture the past and, similar to the elders of Haggai, I was unable to be present in the moment and dream of God’s future.
In the final moments, Everett plays a tape from the recorder which affects some new friends in a major way. That device is in the final climatic shot of the film (no spoilers) but it has clearly been abandoned by the now trio. As important as devices are to our lives, I have resolved to abandon the use of those devices when they tether me from partaking more fully in God’s adventure for me.
Finally, Fay’s being forced to take her baby sister along adds new levels of complexity to the drama. But isn’t that the way with rugrats? We can’t always see if the kids we influence will struggle with unhealthy nostalgia, but if we teach them to pray for God’s will, they have a much better chance of flexibly living in the moment.
So, cuff those Levi’s, grab some popcorn, and watch The Vast of Night. Enjoying great cinema is one of the pleasures of this training ground, but more importantly it gives us the opportunity for God’s catalysts to influence us. Just like airplane oxygen masks, we need to submit to God’s will, put away devices (stow tray tables?), and be flexible to live in the moment before we can help others. Just as I was compelled to share this incredible film and what God was doing in my life, once you’ve applied these principles, share them with others. After all, this isn’t Area 51—we don’t need to stage a cover up.
1. The more I research Patterson the more I see his humility. For example, he wrote TVoN under a pseudonym, doesn’t have a credit for his directing, and refused to schmooze his way into the industry.
2. Krista Gray, “When Nostalgia Becomes Unhealthy, According to a Clinical Psychologist,” 3/29/19, https://www.brit.co/when-nostalgia-becomes-unhealthy/
4. https://www.themuse.com/advice/this-is-nuts-it-takes-nearly-30-minutes-to-refocus-after-you-get-distracted and https://lifehacker.com/how-long-it-takes-to-get-back-on-track-after-a-distract-1720708353 and https://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-your-smartphone-could-be-ruining-your-career-2017-03-31
5. “Seeing and Believing 255: Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound and Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night,” https://christandpopculture.com/greyhound-vast-of-night-christian-review/.
7. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001, p. 81.