Years ago, I saw the film What Happened Was…, starring Tom Noonan and Karen Sillas. Tom Noonan also wrote and directed it. A critically acclaimed film at the time (it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance – Noonan winning for his screenplay, as well as his acting – and it also won a couple of Independent Spirit Awards – she won for acting, and he won, again, for his screenplay) it has since disappeared completely from off the map. It is no longer out on VHS, if you want to buy it you have to buy a used copy (which I have done), and it is certainly not on DVD. This is a shame. It’s a wonderful haunting film that has stayed with me for years – strange little details stayed in my mind, although I couldn’t remember what they signified:
– the broken pieces of her china cat in the fish bowl
– the little red room in her apartment with the doll house and the duck lamp
– her behavior during the opening scene when she is waiting for him to show up (microwaving the dinner, drinking wine, running around)
– his monologue at the end, that killer closeup
– the blueness of her walls, contrasting with her bright red dress
– the story she reads him
– the sort of Rear Window aspect of the production design, the views into all of the other apartments
– that freaky section when he looks at the doll house and thinks he sees little figures moving around in there – brilliant
And then how everything on this “first date” goes so far south that you don’t believe either of these characters will ever fully recover. It’s not the DATE that is so bad, although it’s pretty damn bad, it’s that THEY are broken people, with only fragments, shards of themselves left to give.
It’s brutal. Claustrophobic. Occasionally funny, in a rather awful way, with stellar performances by the two leads. It is a pleasure to watch both of them work. This is not kitchen-sink realism. This is not cautious “realistic” work. They are characters, first and foremost, with some theatricality to them, some underlying issues and subtext, and all of that stuff which is so often left out of films such as this one. The poster for the film, while understandable from a marketing perspective, completely misrepresents the dark stifling relentless journey you are about to go on. You think you are watching one thing (an awkward first date), and you are, you are correct on that score, but then by the end, you realize you have been watching quite another kind of event. Something much deeper, the two characters straddling the abyss of their own lives.
When I first saw the film, I felt GUTTED like a freakin’ FLOUNDER.
I haven’t seen it in years, due to how hard it is to find. Also, I haven’t had a television, so I have been strictly relegated to watching movies on my laptop. When I finally set up my entertainment system, I was happy because I am now able to watch movies that, for whatever boneheaded reason, have not made the transfer to DVD yet. Sounder, for example. It’s been a joy. I haven’t seen some of these in years.
So last week, I bought a used VHS copy of What Happened Was …, and I watched it last night, which, perhaps, was not a good idea. I couldn’t sleep afterwards. And I woke up this morning in a bit of a funk, so I decided to write it out. I remember how disturbing I found the film when I saw it 10, 12 years ago, but I was younger then. The issues in the film cut way closer to the bone now. Interesting, and just indicative of its power: that it could seem almost like a different movie to me, when I saw it at two different stages of my life. That’s powerful stuff. Not all movies can transfer like that, but this one does. If anything, it was MORE disturbing now.
I will write a more in-depth review of it, I want to add it to my Under-rated Movies Series, but for now, I just want to reiterate that the film has a haunting inexplicable power. It works ON you, rather than working just in and of itself. It sneaks up on you. I spend an hour, watching their awkward attempts at conversation, watching how much she drinks, watching how skillfully and invisibly the actors reveal the characters they are playing. The film is a sucker-punch. 3/4s of the way through, she reads him one of the stories she writes in her free time. It is called What Happened Was …. She is drunk by this point. This is the turning point for him. His veneer cracks. Irrevocably. As he listens to the story (which is horrifying, brutal), you can see beads of sweat start to appear on his face, he is in ruthless close-up, I start to wish the camera would pull back, just to give him (and me) a break. This is when he glances at the doll house and, awfully, sees little figures walking around in the windows. What Happened Was… changes, forever, in that creepy terrifying moment. We realize what we are seeing. We realize what the EVENT actually is. And by that point, just like with him, it is too late for us to escape. His claustrophobia is ours.
The character Noonan plays is a Harvard grad, who works as a paralegal at a law firm, and has done so for 15 years. He has contempt for all of the lawyers, and partners, and it is his contempt (expressed in a kind of laughing way, which makes him seem superior to everyone) that gets him through the day. It’s a good act. It’s fun to feel smarter than everyone else around you. Or, in his case, it’s not that it’s fun, it’s that it’s the only way he feels he can grasp onto anything at ALL.
When she reads her horrifying story, in a kind of child’s blunt sing-song, he can no longer keep up his act. He can no longer play superior. He certainly can’t play superior to this woman. He thought he had her pegged. He did not. This is a devastating realization for him, and I would warrant a guess that this moment, in her red-glowing room, being read to her, is the most real moment he has had in not only years, but perhaps ever.
I was so thrilled, flipping through my giant book Defining Moments in Movies: The Greatest Films, Stars, Scenes and Events that Made Movie Magic to see that this scene is listed. It’s a giant book, going back to the earliest days of film-making.
Michael Sicinski, who wrote the blurb for What Happened Was (the book is made up of a bunch of different contributors, Matt Zoller Seitz being one of them), writes:
Jackie informs Michael that she is a published author and offers to read him some of her work. He is naturally hesitant, since if her fiction is embarrassing it will increase his discomfort exponentially. Instead, Jackie reveals herself to be a somewhat naive but bracingly honest children’s-book-author/performance artist, turning out the lights and delivering a tale of incest, abuse, and eventual escape. Like a female Charles Bukowski (imagine!) or some demon spawn of Sam Fuller and Judy Blume, Jackie has crafted a steely-eyed tale of innocence despoiled. (The ambiguity as to just how autobiographical it is only adds to the frisson, and Michael’s dumbstruck awe.) Although the scene is followed by a disclosure that, in another context, could belittle Jackie, Michael – and the audience – instead respond with protective tenderness.
What Happened Was is not interested in letting anyone off the hook. It is a portrayal of Eleanor Rigbys, and all the lonely people out there, and while Noonan tries to maintain a distant stance of laughing at the foibles of humanity, he is unable to keep it up in the face of Jackie’s blunt truth. And Jackie, Jackie … what a character Sillas has created. You can literally feel her loneliness buzzing along the surface of her skin. It emanates a sickly aura. And yet, she still tries to put on the game face. She is beautiful, if a bit flat and serious in the eyes. She’s on a date. She works with this guy, and she has had a crush on him for months. But this is not a woman who is able to be casual anymore. She once was, she makes reference to how crazy she used to be, and you can feel how much work it has been for her to tamp down that craziness. But you can’t tamp down the longing for connection. The hurt sensation that life has passed you by. That somehow … you have missed out on all of the human natural things that everyone else seems to get to participate in. Dating, love, sex, romance, marriage, a personal life … why does everyone else get to have these things, and not her? Sillas doesn’t allow any of this to become self-pitying, and she also holds her cards close to her chest. None of it comes out until the end, when the masks are ripped off, and neither of them can hide anymore. Her feeling about her life is one of anger, yes, but also she’s more confused, and hurt, like a little girl. “Why not me? Why isn’t any of this FOR me?” She doesn’t know where she went wrong, but it is obvious that she has.
This has resonance for me on all kinds of terrible levels, but it’s also one of the things I’m working on in that script of mine. It is the main element I am looking to capture. I watched What Happened Was … last night and realized just how much that film had influenced me. It stuck with me. I saw it, and it has never really left me. It’s strangely ominous. It was prophetic, actually.
It’s a really fine piece of art, and I wish it was available to be seen. I probably shouldn’t have just casually popped it in last night, I should know better by now, but it certainly made me think deep and hard about my script, and what I am trying to do there – and gearing up for this week of rehearsals, that is a good good place to be.
More on What Happened Was later, but for now, a snippet of the script, when things start to spiral down on the date. It’s uncanny how much this reflects, uhm, recent experiences, let’s say that. On both sides of the table.
Michael: I feel terrible now.
Jackie: Yeah, well, dates are weird sometimes.
Michael: This was a date?
Jackie: You know, you’d like everyone to think you don’t know what’s going on, but you know what’s going on. You know very well that I liked you a lot and that this was a date.
Michael: See, if I had known that you felt that way –
Jackie: Don’t tell me that you wouldn’t have come.
Michael; If I have done anything to mislead you –
Jackie: No, you haven’t done anything. You know, I liked you, and I’m sorry I liked you.
Michael: I’m very flattered that you feel that way about me.
Jackie: Flattered? Are you fucking kidding me? I mean, if you don’t want to get involved, that’s fine, that’s your choice, but don’t tell me that this never happened, that I got this all wrong, that I made this up. Don’t tell me that I made this up!
Michael: Why don’t you just let me try to explain –
Jackie: Just get out.
Michael: Well, if you’d let me try to explain –
Jackie: Just get the fuck out of here.
Long silence. She goes and starts washing the dishes like a maniac.
Michael: Uhm …
Michael: I don’t do this. I said I don’t do this kind of thing anymore. I didn’t quit law school. I had to leave. I was almost done and then I started to … I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and everyone’s voices got louder and louder, and I felt smaller and smaller. I felt like I was falling all the time. I carry this briefcase everywhere, writing notes all the time. And I get home, and I put the briefcase on the hall table and I never open it. See, I don’t write. I haven’t written anything in years. And I don’t have a publisher. You know what I do all the time ? I watch TV. I get home and I get my dinner and I sit in front of the TV set and I tell myself it’s okay to watch for a little while, I’m lonely, I’ll write after dinner and then after dinner I get the TV Guide and I check and see if something’s on, and I’ll watch one program, like a good one, like a science special or something, but then I’ll watch whatever’s on. Even if I’ve seen it before. Because it fills this void in me. Because nobody ever told me what to do. And so I watch all night hoping it tells me what to do. You know, I don’t talk about anything I haven’t seen on TV. I didn’t read about birds or microwaves … See, it’s like something broke in me a long time ago. And I don’t know what it was, and it’s too hard for me to keep trying. There’s a lot of things I want to do with my life. And I’m so far behind now. I’m never gonna catch up. I just wish someone could tell me what to do. That I should sit down, I should eat something, and afterwards, afterwards they’ll answer my questions, and tell me how to do stuff, and if I screw up it’s okay cause that’s what people do, screwing up is a good thing, it’s good, and then they’ll tell me to go to bed and go to sleep, it’ll be okay tomorrow, we’ll do something else, we’ll have fun. I’m sorry.
Long silence. She stares at him.
Jackie: You know, I lie in bed at night and I’m staring up at the ceiling, and it’s like, the only thing that’s gotten me through lately is the thought that I’d see you at work. At first I thought oh, I just liked you, because you were so much fun making jokes at those guys’ expense, and them not knowing it … and then you’d smile and you’d look at me, and I’d understand.I don’t know what happened. It’s like, at one point guys just stopped asking me out, you know? I don’t know if it was cause of my age or because maybe I gave off this serious vibe. It was probably that. It’s funny, you know? You finally grow up, you finally figure out who the hell you are, and just when you got something interesting to give, they’re not interested anymore. So I probably knew you wouldn’t come through for me, you know? I should have known when the smartest nicest funniest guy, who’s a paralegal, who does the Xeroxing in the office, I should have known that you are where you are because you want to be there. Because we all are where we are because we want to be there, right?