WHAT HAPPENED WAS ..., the feature directing debut of New York film and experimental theater actor Tom Noonan (LAST ACTION HERO, MANHUNTER), is a two-character piece about an uneasy downtown Manhattan encounter which makes for a chilling, illuminating experience. A black comedy of style
and character, the film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival.
Jackie (Karen Sillas), a secretary in a law firm, lives in a dimly lit loft facing a grim urban landscape. On a Friday night, she is visited for a first "date" by Michael (Tom Noonan), an enigmatic, rather guarded paralegal she knows from work. During an awkward dinner, the two of them probe
each other conversationally, disclosing some things about themselves which may or may not be true. Michael reveals he has been spying on their law firm and plans to write an expose of its corporate activities. Jackie confides that she has written children's fairy tales, but when she reads one
aloud to Michael in her dressing area, he is dismayed by its evocations of child abuse and fear. As the evening continues, there is a clumsy kiss, more revelations, and the implication that the more two people try to know each other, the more they are likely to remain essential strangers.
As its title might suggest, WHAT HAPPENED WAS ... addresses narrative in elliptical fashion, leaving room for subjective impressions as to what exactly transpires in its 90-minute span, played out in real time. "It's funny, I always know what to say in the office," Jackie tells Michael
nervously, but hesitation and anxiety are only part of the fabric that unites and then separates these two uneasy misfits. Often, as in a Harold Pinter play, it's the spaces between the lines that do the talking; at times, however, the film is almost naturalistic in its re-creation of the fumbling
ways people communicate in everyday life. At such moments, one nearly forgets the piece was actually scripted (by Noonan, based on his play), so pervasive is its enclosed world of doubt and deception.
Both characters travel a considerable distance, psychologically and emotionally, in this encounter, and both actors are up for the challenge. Sillas, seen first in a tensely comic prologue as she "prepares" for the evening, engages the viewer's sympathies throughout, capturing the simplicity of
a woman who likes the music of Air Supply, while hinting at a bruised disquiet within. This is a lovely, shaded performance. Noonan, his gaunt face transmitting honesty and duplicity like twin bursts from a shotgun, gives the movie a nervous edge that rubs up against Sillas's isolated charm.
Creepy at first, his hand clutching a briefcase he chooses not to relinquish, Michael seems like a man in awe of his own alienation.
Proponents of mise-en-scene in the age-old conflict with montage will be gratified to learn that, in this movie, montage barely puts up a fight. Noonan and production designer Dan Ouelette have made Jackie's loft an integral part of the film, practically a character in its own right. Similarly,
Joe DeSalvo's shadow-rich photography creates a mood which enforces the picture's wary view of human equations. Obviously, WHAT HAPPENED WAS... is not for everyone. One could even argue that, with its subject matter and characterizations, it is a deconstructed model of the New York behavioral
comedy Woody Allen has long been trying to make.
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: WHAT HAPPENED WAS ..., the feature directing debut of New York film and experimental theater actor Tom Noonan (LAST ACTION HERO, MANHUNTER), is a two-character piece about an uneasy downtown Manhattan encounter which makes for a chilling, illuminating expe… (more)