In Vanishing on 7th Street, a group of characters band together in a Detroit bar to fight against an inexplicable enemy. When darkness comes, those who are not protected by a light source – such as a torch - simply vanish, leaving only their clothes behind. The film opens in a cinema. Projectionist John Leguizamo, is changing the reels when the lights suddenly go out. When he goes to investigate he finds the entire cinema suddenly empty, except for clothes and possessions left on the seats and in the aisles. Where has everyone vanished to? It is a surreal premise - one that begs a metaphorical or even philosophical meaning. The setting of Detroit, in particular, has allegorical resonance. In real life as well as film the once thriving ‘motorcity’ is now a ghost town; industry has ended there. Houses stand empty. People have left. Like in Vanishing on 7th Street only shadows remain. And the creeping darkness threatens to encroach into other cities, with similar results.
Indeed in Anderson’s films, the inexplicable only happens to the workers: the blue collar stiff in The Machinist, the office drone in Sounds Like, the tradesmen builders in Session 9. In these films, the workplace itself becomes a site of horror. The personal insanity of the characters is possibly caused by their working environment, certainly is made worse by it. The mundane yet highly stressful job of the machinist, Christian Bale, seems, at first to be the thing that is tipping him over the edge. In Session 9, the impossibly short timescale of the building contract pressures the men unduly, making them increasingly tired and disorientated –and susceptible to the influence of the asylum and the malignant forces it holds within its walls. In Vanishing on 7th Street all the characters are separated from loved ones because of the pressures of work. Thandi Newton is a junior doctor forced to leave her baby at home while she does her shift. Hayden Christensen is a news reporter whose job takes him away from home, only to find his girlfriend vanished once he returns. For these characters, their lives are vanished and now their very existence is at stake. In fact their final line of defence against vanishing is to protest their existence, as John Leguizamo attempts to. As the workers in real life Detroit tried to.
Vanishing on 7th Street borrows heavily from Night of the Living Dead in this sense. A small group of characters are besieged by an inexplicable, even absurd, apocalypse (that are filmic allegories of real world events). Both films share the absurdist tragedy of the playwright Eugene Ionesco, whose The Chairs featured only two characters in a post-apocalyptic world proliferated by threatening chairs. Ionesco’s play spoke to the absurdity of the nuclear age in 1952, Romero’s film to the absurdity of intergenerational conflict in the 1960s, and Anderson’s films seem to speak increasingly to the absurdity of economic collapse in present day America.
Anderson has an uncanny ability to take the familiar environments of American towns and cities and make them impersonal and strange. In Vanishing on 7th Street the abandoned streets of Detroit take on an unreal sheen. In The Machinist, West Coast American details – cars, phone kiosks – were added to Barcelona Streets (where the film was shot) to disorientate the viewer. The film is set in America and it looks like America - and yet it doesn’t quite.
This sense of jet-lagged disorientation is heightened by Anderson’s masterful use of sound. Anderson often drops out the atmosphere track, leaving only a single sound source in isolation. The effect is to create a dislocated state of mind like that of descending in a plane when your ears pop, leaving everything slightly surreal. In Sounds Like, Anderson made this sense of heightened sound the basis of the story.
Even in an indifferent Anderson film like Vanishing on 7th Street all of these characteristics are present. Despite the lacklustre script, Anderson’s gift for subtle psychological horror – and his peerless ability to render it on film – shines through. For that alone It is worth seeing.