May 17, 2012

What Happened Was... (1994)

(Above: two very different posters to market the movie. The left picture far more accurately captures the characters than the other photo's attempts to sex things up.)

Director / Writer / Editor / Music: Tom Noonan
Producer: Scott Macaulay, Robin O’Hara
Cinematographer: Joe DeSalvo
Samuel Goldwyn Company; 91 min; color

Tom Noonan (Michael), Karen Sillas (Jackie)

The film begins with Jackie trying on numerous dresses in her apartment for a dinner date with her co-worker Michael, to be held there later that evening. She is illuminated with a hard key light that flattens her face to a sinister visage. These are startling images that one cannot shake off, even as the lights in her apartment dim to a sultry orange, even as she makes herself up to look more alluring: we sense that something lurks beneath the surface of this deceptively domestic setting. 

When Michael shows up for talk, dinner and more talk, the set literally gets darker, complimenting the shadowy beings beneath the characters’ transparent exteriors. The conversation that unfolds for ninety minutes is by turns mundane and forced; the two sometimes utter sentences that they immediately wish they could retract. In the film’s final moments, their true nature is laid bare to the other and to themselves. What Happened Was... is a movie that explores something we can all recognize: the awkward first date, however seldom has this universal experience been taken to such a hellish degree. The torment these two characters feel is a result of their words and actions, as well as the notions they decide not to act upon. The project began as a stage play written by Tom Noonan, and was quickly transformed to film after a short run. Despite the single setting (save for a haunting finale on the city street), the movie never feels stagebound. The sole location rather reflects the claustrophobia of these people: they are trapped in cages of their own design. The aesthetic choice to film many sequences in unbroken master shots could also make the adaptation seem theatrical, but the frame is often kept wide to study the characters' body languages: their nervous quirks and movements add a further dialogue to the uneasy conversation.

The title of the movie is also the name of a children’s story that Jackie had written, and reads to Michael in one spooky scene. The story’s allusions to children playing in a doll’s house (further emphasizing entrapment) are captured in a visually innovative way, featuring stop-motion animation and silhouette cut-outs (one way in which this film truly feels cinematic, and not just a filmed stage play). This sequence is the heart of the film: these adults act as irrationally as children while awkwardly attempting to be mature.

Actor-writer-director Tom Noonan has created a funny, quirky, unsettling and haunting masterpiece: it is an unforgettable character study where one can learn from these people both in what is, and is not said. Despite the principle interior setting, it is also one of the most moving portraits of urban loneliness, further conveyed in the chilling conclusion when all around the setting of our little drama, dimly lit apartments house even more lost souls imprisoned in their brick cages. The two actors' unconventional, non-"movie star" appearances perfectly convey the quirky characters, yet lend an authenticity to the milieu of everyday people with achingly human imperfections.

This is a tour-de-force for Noonan, who also edits and performs the music under aliases. The picture is funded from his own acting jobs in previous films, where he usually played villains or social misfits. Michael is not malevolent like others in Noonan’s gallery, however he is still socially dysfunctional (he appears at Jackie’s door with his tie hanging out of his jacket pocket!). Despite how much his personality may dominate the project onscreen and off, it is Karen Sillas who steals the film. 

The actor-director originally offered the role of Jackie to his then-wife Karen Young, who turned it down, as did other name talent like Elizabeth McGovern and Frances McDormand, before it was offered to Karen Sillas, then best-known for appearances in a couple of Hal Hartley films. She inhabits Jackie so well that one could not imagine anyone else in the chameleon-like and ultimately tragic role: the characterization is by turns funny, endearing, sexy, grotesque and slightly demented. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was garnering its list of nominees for the 1994 year, there was much media speculation on the poor female roles being offered- however, ironically, the Academy failed to nominate the two greatest performances for an actress that year: Judy Davis in The New Age, and Karen Sillas’ stunning work here. 

When I saw this film in a sparsely populated theater in 1995 (which enhanced the milieu of urban isolation onscreen), I had envisioned that this was going to be a breakthrough role for Karen Sillas. The movie had won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (as well as the festival's Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting), and some rave reviews, however it attracted a marginal audience. Sadly, her deserved crossover to “A”-list leading roles never came. Then, as now, her character Jackie is a role of a lifetime.

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