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Vanishing On 7th Street (2010)
Director: Brad Anderson

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Back in the early 2000s, the market for independent American film was cannibalising itself. The Sundance kids of the 1990s had moved towards the mainstream and Miramax had shifted from distributing small independent films to producing huge Hollywood films that struggled to maintain what can only be called an 'indie sensibility'. Amidst the ruins of the American indie, Brad Anderson made a name for himself thanks to a series of low-fi psychological thrillers including Session 9 (2001), and The Machinist (2004). Beautifully directed, cheaply produced, and littered with great performances and moments of cinematic brio, these films embodied an independence of mind and spirit that were rapidly departing American independent film.

Together, these films showcased a director whose talent and potential fizzed from every shot and every scene. Fast forward a few years and Anderson's IMDb page reveals a director who is clearly struggling to get films made, a director who now makes a living directing for TV. On paper, Vanishing On 7th Street should have marked Anderson's return to the big screen; a high-concept combination of Pitch Black (2000), Pulse (aka:Kairo, 2001), and Stephen King's The Langoliers (1995), Vanishing On 7th Street boasts a decent cast, some excellent cinematography, and the kind of dreamily metaphorical script that Anderson used to spin into cinematic gold. However, despite all of its potential, Vanishing On 7th Street is ultimately lacking in intelligence, focus, and tension, which are precisely the characteristics that used to be the hallmarks of Anderson's films.

Set in the rundown city of Detroit, Vanishing On 7th Street begins with a power-cut that plunges the city into darkness. Struggling to dig themselves out of their city's power-dependent infrastructure, a disparate group of individuals soon start to notice that all is not well for while the power-cut should have plunged the city into chaos, Detroit's streets and cities seem eerily empty. Where did everybody go?

Shot in almost complete darkness, Vanishing On 7th Street is an intensely atmospheric film that presents the city's few remaining pools of electric light as sepia-toned oases in an ocean of nothingness. The film's sepia colour scheme not only captures Detroit's post-industrial status and makes a pleasant change from all the films being shot through blue-tinted filters; it also suggests that the film is ultimately all about memory. This metaphorical scheme is further supported by the fact that the film's small cast all run into each other in a bar filled with American memorabilia, its long shiny bar, sports posters and golden oldie-packed jukebox speak of a yearning for yesterday that dovetails with the fact that the film revolves around people disappearing from Detroit. Indeed, once a rich and vibrant city, Detroit's streets are now emptying of people while its decaying industrial infrastructure is slowly reclaimed by nature. Vanishing On 7th Street is a film all about the decay of the past and the toxic allure of nostalgia. The people of Detroit are not only vanishing from Detroit, they are also vanishing into the abyss of memory.

Despite the thickness of its metaphorical imagery, Vanishing On 7th Street is an oddly underwritten film. Its plot introduces us to a small cast of characters and leads them through a series of set-pieces where they struggle to remain in the light as eerily anthropomorphic shadows creep along the walls and floors. At times, the characters begin to lose focus and their minds drift towards their pasts and the loved ones they have lost. These moments generally result in them wandering off into the darkness endangering not only themselves but also their fellow survivors. Seemingly unaware that reusing the same effects shots and situations over and over dilutes their effectiveness, Vanishing On 7th Street repeats this process until all of its characters are dealt with, at which point the film promptly ends. What makes Vanishing On 7th Street such a deeply unsatisfying film is the fact that it somehow manages to fall between three different dramatic registers:

Firstly, the film's reliance upon darkness-based set-pieces and attempts to protect dwindling sources of light suggest that the film may be attempting to be a thriller or a straight horror film in the tradition of David Twohy's Pitch Black. However, while Pitch Black uses the techniques of the horror genre to coax visceral terror from its audience, Vanishing On 7th Street offers a far more sedate form of tension. This is not a film in which people are snatched out of the darkness by terrifying shapes, this is a film in which people simply wander off and disappear into the existential fog. In other words, Vanishing On 7th Street is not in the least bit scary.

Secondly, the film's somewhat oblique references to urban decline and the toxic charms of nostalgia suggest that it might be attempting to ape Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo. However, while Kairo fuses the techniques of Japanese horror with poetic sensibilities to explore a metaphysical allegory for loneliness, Vanishing On 7th Street never bothers to unpack or develop any of its metaphorical themes, meaning that these stay very much in the background. As a result, unless you are willing to do a lot of 'active reading', this film is really not about anything more than a group of characters struggling to remain alive despite their desire to drift off into nothingness.

Thirdly, by anchoring so many of the film's set-pieces in the characters' self-destructive desire to drift off into the darkness in order to find a loved one, you might expect Vanishing On 7th Street to make some of the same moves as traditional dramas like Tom Ford's A Single Man (2009). A Single Man focuses relentlessly on Colin Firth's character, detailing not only the events leading up to his suicide attempt but also the reasons for why these events had the effect they did.

Conversely, Vanishing On 7th Street never bothers to delve into its characters' backgrounds, meaning that Thandie Newton spends the entire film mooning about her child, while John Leguizamo talks about old films and songs. Drawn in such broad strokes, the characters' back-stories never really come to life and seldom seem like more than conceits designed to trigger a set-piece. Despite boasting a decent cast, the film's failure to provide any of the characters with anything resembling an arc means that the actors never have anything to sink their teeth into and so, as a character piece, Vanishing On 7h Street is an abject and total failure.

Vanishing On 7th Street could have been a brilliant horror film, an intelligent allegory for urban collapse or a thoughtful character study, but its refusal to pick a dramatic register and stick with it means that the resulting film is nothing but a series of pretty but ultimately pointless exercises in low-budget atmospheric cinematography. This is a brilliant idea waiting for a competently written script.

While the catalogue of errors and missed opportunities that make up Vanishing On 7th Street failed to produce a good film, they do serve to shed some light into the realities of indie genre filmmaking. Boasting a decent director and some quite credible on-screen talent, it is easy to see how this film got made but, looking at the script, it is hard to work out why anyone wanted to make it in the first place. Peter Biskin's Down And Dirty Pictures (2004), on the American indie film scene of the 1990s, talks about how the financing process changed over time.

According to Biskind, indie film used to begin with a script at which point directors and actors would be added to the script in order to find financing and get the film made. However, by the turn of the millennium, Biskind argues that producers seldom bothered to look at the script on the assumption that decent actors would guarantee box office. Vanishing On 7th Street is a reduction ad absurdum of this approach to film financing: yes, it has some credible actors; yes, it has a good director; and I imagine the rushes must have looked pretty good too, but I am generally astonished that anyone was able to walk into a meeting with Anthony Jaswinski's script and make a case for why this film needed to be made. Some scripts simply are not ready for the screen and the script that fed Vanishing On 7th Street is undeniably one of them.

Vanishing On 7th Street poster

Vanishing On 7th Street DVD

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