“What Happened Was….” (Thoughts on the Film)

 I suppose I am lucky that I never had to negotiate the world of dating as a single adult, out there in “the wild”. My dating life was mercifully short, and it took place in the context of the sheltered existence of college. It was also by the greatest good luck that the last person I dated in college ended up being the last person I dated at all, because we’re still together now.

What Happened Was is a movie that not about dating, but it’s about one specific date, and that’s it. Ninety minutes that track the entirety of a single date between two people who work in the same New York City law firm. He ((Michael, played by Tom Noonan, the film’s writer and director) is a paralegal  and she (Jackie, played by Karen Sillas) is an executive assistant. The movie was made in 1994, so he can make a crack about “That’s what they’re calling secretaries now.” He’s a very tall, gangly man, bald except for around the edges. She wears her red hair tied back, but loosely. The entire date takes place in her apartment (one set, which fits since the film is an adaptation of a stage play). She has made dinner. They eat, they drink, and gradually they bare their souls to one another, with results that disappoint each, in each other and in themselves.

I wouldn’t have even known this movie exists if not for Sheila O’Malley, who wrote glowingly of it last week (and previously in her paid column which I hope returns one day). Apparently the film was released in 1994 to some acclaim, and then it managed to disappear into the memory hole pretty completely. It had a VHS release but never a DVD, and the version that was haltingly available on streaming services wasn’t in great shape. But a restoration has taken place and now that version is in release and is getting wider streaming access. I watched the film on YouTube, as a rental, but I’m not sure which version I saw, the restoration or the earlier, cruddier print. (I did try to watch the restored one on Fandango, but for some reason Fandango’s credit card interface wasn’t working at all, prompting me to correct my information even though it was correct each and every time. YouTube, being a Google company, uses Google Pay, which makes that sort of thing much easier.)

Here is Sheila on What Happened Was:

In her 2016 book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, an essential entry in the sparse study of loneliness, Olivia Laing writes, “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged.” When I read Laing’s book, I thought of 1994’s What Happened Was, written and directed by Tom Noonan, one of the great films about loneliness, in particular loneliness of the urban variety. The film unnerved me so much when I saw it in its initial release—25 years ago—that it was a long time before I re-visited it. Images from it haunted me for years. Marketed as a meet-cute gone awry, What Happened Was… is, instead, an unblinking look at the havoc loneliness can wreak on humans. It’s only 91 minutes, but every minute is excruciating.

The description–a movie unfolding in real time with just two people on a date–made me think of another classic film of the same general description, which came out right around the same time, Before Sunrise. But where that film is about the fire of youthful lust between two people who are walking around Vienna, What Happened Was is about older people who have been adults long enough to feel some disappointment that their adult lives have not tracked their younger dreams, but they haven’t given up the dreams yet, either. It’s harder for them to open up, and when they do, the results are much, much, much messier. This movie plays out almost like a psychological thriller, but the thrills are purely internal. Don’t read anything into the brief moment where she brandishes a knife at him. She laughs, saying “I’m kidding!” She does this a lot: saying something to provoke him or push him off kilter, and then laughing and assuring him (and us) that she’s joking. It never really quite defuses the tension, though. He does it too, and it doesn’t work for him, either.

We first see her sleeping, naked, face down, on a mattress with no pillows and only a sheet wrapped around her waist. Her phone–the kind of cordless handset once found in every home in America, though this one’s pink–lies on the bed next to her and she is clutching a ceramic cat. Why? We don’t know. Minutes later she’ll drop the cat and break it while in her last frantic moments of getting ready for the date. She picks up the pieces and drops them in the fish tank. Nothing is ever explained of the ceramic cat. This isn’t the kind of movie where characters linger over personal belongings: “Oh, that. My grandmother bought that for me at a flea market when she was traveling through Dubuque. She always loved the Mississippi River….” Nope; none of that. Oddly this makes the apartment seem like a real place for me. All of our personal spaces have things in them that only make sense to us.

Her apartment is oddly large, for someone living alone. I wonder what it costs. She has a sitting area with enough space for four or five people, but a separate dining area just for two. She has a dressing area cordoned off by drapes, and a mannequin that is draped with scarves. The mannequin shows up throughout the film, coming and going from the background shots, almost like a third person, silently watching the night’s events unfold. Others seem to watch, too: she has a poster of Martin Luther King and the famous “cat’s eyes” poster from the musical Cats. These posters, along with the mannequin, create almost a constant presence of other eyes, watching Karen and Michael throughout their evening (the only other piece of wall art in Jackie’s apartment is a print of album cover art from the band Asia)…and the film also establishes that Karen’s apartment has a view into other apartments across the streets. She needs to live in a place with a view, she tells Michael several times. No one seems to be looking from their own views into her apartment, though.

I notice that the layout of the apartment is such that the Cats and the MLK posters don’t have a direct line of sight into the kitchen, though. They can’t see into there, and that’s where the Asia cover-art print hangs. It’s almost as if Jackie has constructed her life as to leave her kitchen as private as she can. 

(A beautiful time-lapse shot during the credits shows one of the other buildings, viewed from Jackie’s apartment, as the day fades and the various apartment lights come on.)

We next see her returning home from work; she has bought wine and a cake for the night. A fluorescent light in the hallway outside her front door is constantly flickering, and she finds it annoying enough to smack it a few times, with no result. When Michael arrives he comments on it, and she gives him the usual excuse: the landlord won’t fix it. But before he arrives, she is already sipping from the wine, and a few minutes earlier, when her alarm clock went off, we see an unfinished glass of wine next to it. Jackie drinks a lot, apparently. This is never really commented on, but it’s always there, and Sillas has to trace Jackie’s mannerisms throughout the evening as the alcohol takes its grip on her.

We see her getting dressed for her date, in the not-quite-private dressing area. She tries on a few items, rejects them; she touches her own face in a gesture that will be reprised later by Michael, and she has an expression throughout all of this that is very hard to read. Is she afraid? Nervous? Is she questioning herself? I don’t know. We’re not given any internal (or external) monologue. All we can do is watch…but as she is clearly struggling with something, the mannequin is looking away.

I seem to be focusing a lot on the visual nature of this film, don’t I? But that’s because…well, a movie is a visual thing, and a movie doesn’t have to be some gigantic blockbuster filled with million-dollar digital effects to be a visual masterpiece. What Happened Was relies on visuals to create its story every bit as much as it does its dialogue and acting. All of this creates mood, all the way down to the lighting. Jackie is very particular about the lighting. She has different kinds of lights all over the apartment. Normal lamps and lamps with cloth draped over for color. Cannister track lights over the bar separating the kitchen from the rest of the place. Candles. A chandelier over the dining table. The light in the aquarium. And, eventually, a light-up Mother Goose. Jackie is forever turning this light off and that one on, dimming this and brightening that. And then there’s the light out there in the hallway, the one that flickers so garishly you think it might cause seizures.

Michael arrives, and the first minutes of the date are incredibly awkward. He is carrying his briefcase and the requisite bottle of wine that you bring to someone’s house; when he offers it he stands there for a few seconds, clearly trying to will himself into action, and then he says, “Oh, I brought this wine!” as if he’d forgotten about it…which he very clearly had not. His collar is open and he’s wearing a sweater vest; his necktie is hanging from his jacket pocket. Throughout the first half of the movie, there is usually something between Jackie and Michael: a dining table, a coffee table, the kitchen bar. When they finally reach a point where there’s nothing between them, first on the couch and then later in a part of the apartment we don’t even know is there at first, it feels…neither quite right nor quite wrong.

And there’s the movie’s master stroke, right there, in addition to the brilliant visual construction of the film itself: We never really have a sense of how this date is going. Is this two awkward people being awkward at first and gradually feeling at ease with each other? Or is the awkwardness permanent and these people are a disaster who should never ever date again? We never know. Not even after the film has ended. That’s what makes it linger.

As Jackie and Michael talk through the first half of their date, some things–themes–emerge, and their dialogue is intriguingly constructed. Each says things that they repeat a few times, like how Jackie likes to live with a view. It’s almost like they feel the need to return to conversational safe space as they feel themselves starting to drift toward a confessional space. Michael seems to get there first, opening up about how he is gathering information for a book he’s writing about the law firm; this catches Jackie’s ear, because her own dialogue conveys a strong sense that even at the firm she feels like she’s on the outside looking in, a little.

At first Michael definitely comes off as being the stranger of these two people. One of his early confessions is that he hears his own name mentioned subliminally in a Beatles song. Jackie is briefly taken aback by this, but she recovers by claiming that “Oh yeah, something like that happened to me once!”, but she gives no details. Her own awkwardness is less overt: she has invited this guy over to dinner at her place, so she’s cooking for him–but she does all her cooking on the weekend and freezes everything to be microwaved through the week, so her big dinner for him is a microwaved scallop dish that she literally serves to him from the Tupperware container she nuked it in. He grins through this, in a way that seems a little mocking–but then he says weird shit like “I hate the word ‘seafood’,” so it’s hard to tell just where he’s landing on all this. Meanwhile, she keeps drinking and filling his glass. She almost forgets that she has rolls on the table, and she doesn’t serve the salad until after they’ve been eating for ten minutes.

Michael’s book-writing sounds like real social crusader stuff: he wants to get the truth out there, let the people know what’s going on! But it’s all vague and he says things about publishing that seem…wrong, made-up. He pulls out a little notebook at one point to jot something down, but he doesn’t tell Jackie what he’s written, and we never do find out. There are a lot of such moments in What Happened Was: tiny moments that might be meaningful or might not be, and all we can do is watch it all play out and decide for ourselves, later on.

Jackie, it turns out, also writes. She writes stories, and she has even published a few–but that turns out to have been a vanity publisher. Michael seems to know this, but he’s got enough kindness not to squash her on that basis, and eventually he gets her to read one of her stories to him. She tells him that it’s a kid’s story, but it very much…is…not. She reads it to him in another room, separated by a curtain. She keeps her notebooks in a lockbox (the same kind of notebook, albeit larger, as the one in which he had jotted his secret note earlier). She reads a story that starts off sounding awkward, stilted; I have to note Sillas’s performance here as she starts the reading haltingly, in the manner of someone who is reading their work aloud for the first time (and yes, I know what that feels like). But she gets over that and reads…and reads…and reads. The story is quite a bit longer than we (or Michael) expected, and it’s here that the movie makes its most use of close-ups. The reaction shots on Michael are disorienting, in the dim light of this secret space that’s illuminated by a Mother Goose lamp.

Returning to visual elements, the use of color in What Happened Was is pretty amazing. The palette seems muted early on, but aspects of the set take on a more saturated appearance as we proceed. Even the Asia poster in the kitchen shows this: in the last scene, it has red highlights that aren’t there in the opening scenes. The visuals are more and more stark as the emotions our characters are plumbing become more and more stark.

I don’t want to spoil too much of this, but in the end, the date doesn’t end particularly well. Nor does it end spectacularly badly, either. Jackie may eventually be too drunk to make sense of what’s gone on (though she’s not wrecked, either) and Michael makes a final confessional that feels like a desperate attempt on his part to salvage a night that has not gone the way he may have hoped…but then, he never really seemed to bring much by way of hope into the night to begin with. Michael’s final confessional might be the part of the film I liked least, because…it’s honestly the one thing that happens in this movie, the one thing said by either character, that’s not surprising. I’ll just leave it at that. But as the movie ends, we’re not sure really if the situation between Jackie and Michael is completely doomed, or if it can be repaired (they’re going to see each other Monday morning, right?), or if they’ll exist in some kind of relational limbo for a while. But it’s worth noting one last visual cue: when Michael leaves for the night, as he heads out into that hallway, the formerly flickering garish light is no longer flickering. It’s just garish.

Sillas and Noonan are both incredibly effective in these roles. Noonan even makes use of his own incredibly long fingers for some shots, like when he picks a piece of lettuce off the table (it fell out of his salad bowl when she overfilled it) and puts it in his mouth after a second or two of clearly thinking, “I’m not sure what to do with this.” Sillas tracks quite the emotional journey here as she hurries to get ready for this date, then pours herself into it, then opens herself up, and then has to process her deep disappointment that it hasn’t gone the way she had hoped, though we never really know what she hoped for this night. Meanwhile, Noonan’s Michael seems like a guy who has a lot of initial bluster, then some retreat, then some more bluster, followed by defensive retreat…and when he finally decides to commit to his own feelings in any way, it may be too late. In the end he finally admits that he has no idea what he’s doing, and Jackie has to clarify that for him.

In the two days since I watched What Happened Was, I keep thinking about it and about these two characters. I wonder what happened for both of them. I have my thoughts on that (I think this night ends up a one-off that they never even mention again to anyone), but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe. I keep thinking about it, and I suspect that’s the entire point.

ADDENDUM: In Sheila’s article above, she also mentions that the film’s marketing campaign did it no favors, and after looking into that a little, Holy SHIT, is she right. The trailer really does make it look like an erotic thriller, and the poster makes it look like…I don’t even know what you’d expect from a movie with this poster, but it sure isn’t what the movie ends up delivering.

I wonder if the movie’s 1994 vintage hurt it a bit. This was when the “rise of indie film” in the 90s was just starting to gather steam, and I suspect that the people in charge of marketing this film just simply had no idea at all of how to do that. So, they came up with a terrible campaign that likely gave audiences the complete wrong idea, so any word of mouth was likely not great. That’s a shame.

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2 Responses to “What Happened Was….” (Thoughts on the Film)

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    VERY interesting! I'd never heard of this film, and I saw a LOT of films in the '90s, more than any other decade.

  2. Jason says:

    That is so weird. In 1994, I was only a year out of my employment with the multiplex and still VERY much plugged into the movie scene, and I have exactly ZERO memory of this one. That poster, in particular, would have stuck in my head for the very fact that it is so weird, but nope… never saw it that I can recall. It sounds to me (based on your review) like this would have been a very difficult movie to market. Before Sunrise at least had the advantage of two pretty, reasonably well-known young stars in a romantic location (as I recall, the poster was a photo of the two of them with Vienna in the background), but something like this… well…

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