What Happened Was...
Director: Tom Noonan
The audience eavesdrops, as a secretary and a paralegal from a Manhattan law office struggle through a neurosis-filled first date in her apartment.
Rating: A film you'll remember
This is the first-date from hell. Filmmaker Tom Noonan says his movie "explores the dreams, fantasies and nightmares people today keep hidden underneath their prescribed identities."
Actually, this whole film experience, and especially Karen Sillas as Jackie, reminded me all-too-well of a first date I survived many years ago. I don't think either of us was as deranged as this couple, but the situation and the feelings were about the same.
There are only two roles in this movie, and Noonan plays the second as Michael, the male half of the social collision. Noonan also wrote the piece, developed it as a workshop stage presentation, and directed it as his first feature film. Virtually all the credit is his, for good or ill. And it's mostly good.
What Happened Was... is a compact but complete experience. All the action takes place in one evening, in one buffet apartment, between two isolated characters. Yet, it opens two lives before us like raw oysters.
I'd call it high-tension comedy. Hitchcock did tension like this. Noonan's style, the two performances, and Joe DeSalvo's evocative cinematography forge an atmosphere of grating anxiety. We're never sure whether the film is going to turn dark and evil. It touches the spot in us where madness dwells. At times we can't take it seriously. Other times we can't take it lightly. We laugh one moment because it's really funny, and the next because we have to relieve the stress.
Noonan and Sillas hook us early, and reel us in slowly, taking us in the net well before the story ends. Both actors create captivating, complex roles.
Cinematography and editing are dynamic. Odd viewpoints, slightly mismatched shots, and sometimes jarring cuts maintain the tension. Warm, seductive lighting is expunged by harsh fluorescent effects to mark sudden turns of mood.
There is little music. The textures of naturalistic sound lead our emotions. It's more difficult for a filmmaker to set mood with voice and sound effects than with music, but the effect can be powerful.
The film's faults are few. DeSalvo photographs Karen Sillas out of focus some of the time - not with softness, but focusing toward the back of her head. It insulates us from her at a few key moments. The film goes over the edge a bit, becoming too bizarre for most of us to identify with. Only after reflecting on it for a while was I sure it meant to parody my real emotions.
What Happened Was... proves again that it doesn't take a 747 full of money and a stable of superstars to generate terrific film. Birth in poverty doesn't guarantee the success of a movie, but sometimes it helps. I hope Noonan will be as creative when he gets to play with the big budgets.
© 1996, J. C. Adamson