Art and Film: In the zone

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elizabeth Moss as literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman and writer Shirley Jackson.

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / In 1959, at the height of the Cold War, Rod Serling trademarked the creeping alteration of reality as a feature of post-Golden Age television with the advent of The Twilight Zone. Introducing the series premier in his intense nasal baritone – unique yet perpetually mimicked – Serling located the zone somewhere “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Mulder and Scully occupied that space for a decade. Now, in the time of coronavirus, everyone seems to live there.

In “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a classic first-season episode, aliens wreak havoc on Earth essentially by playing practical jokes on unsuspecting humans. It must have inspired The Vast of Night, Andrew Patterson’s archly hip first feature. Self-consciously meta, flaunting its lineage, the film is styled as a TV drama about an insidious alien invasion of a small town in New Mexico in the 1950s. While most of the town’s residents are at the high school basketball game, a young talk-radio host – he’s a cool nerd in Buddy Holly glasses, driven but conscientious – enlists a smitten teenage switchboard operator to track down reticent witnesses and put them on the air. One, a veteran, fears he will be disbelieved because he is black. Another, an elderly woman whose only child was taken, thinks the extraterrestrials have poisoned human reason, bringing senseless war and political abomination. Their infiltration, of course, is ongoing and indefinite. The film offers some winking, madcap nostalgia, but despair and uncertainty are at least as salient.

Also set in the fifties is Josephine Decker’s Shirley, which operates as a mid-life psychological fable – another Twilight Zone subgenre. A fine Elisabeth Moss plays the proto-feminist writer Shirley Jackson, best known for the harrowing story “The Lottery,” in which a woman chosen at random is stoned to death by her community. If Patterson’s instruments are candid homage and targeted messaging, Decker’s are merciless scrutiny and provocative obtuseness. The seamlessly layered narrative presents at once two stages of Jackson’s adult life – the contemporaneous one through her relationship with her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (the deft Michael Stuhlbarg) and an earlier one through a troubled younger couple, their doppelganger houseguests. A patronizing, philandering control freak, the husband is an academic literary critic of presumptively lesser talent, not unlike Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura. His manipulative conduct helps explain the agoraphobic Shirley’s extraordinary meanness as well as her compulsion to dissect her lot for the edification of other women. Cringe-wise, Shirley gives Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a run for its money. In that sense, it too is a movie of its time.

Shirley, directed by Josephine Decker, written by Sarah Gubbins. NEON Films.
The Vast of Night, directed by Andrew Patterson, written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Amazon Studios.

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