by Jan Philippe Carpio
Perhaps in no other art form (and other art forms may disagree with this) do cinema’s practitioners constantly choose (and it is a seldom choice) to wage war with the tyranny of audience expectations. To perpetuate the tyranny of the regime, audiences usually possess five (of many) insidious weapons – immaturity, indifference, arrogance, laziness, distraction – which cinema’s practitioners engage with experience, involvement, humility, dedication, focus. These perpetual wars seem to stem from practitioners and audiences differing perceptions of cinema and its uses. And it is here, on one of the many battlefields of perceptions, where Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was … wages its delicate and covert war.
Using the oftentimes shallowly depicted scenario of a first date, the film places Michael (Noonan), Jackie (Karen Sillas) and the audience in familiar and supposedly comforting territory, but before anyone realizes it, the bright and dreamy lights of sweet nothings, romantic comedies and bittersweet love stories have already quickly faded into the uncertain, unclear and unnerving wilderness of the moment-by-moment emotional and mental twists, turns and adjustments of mature adult relationships. Whatever their category, the ultimately likeable, charming and clearly defined characters suddenly give way to the unpredictable, spontaneous, frustrating and baffling behavior of strangers that one must make the effort to get to know. Noonan reveals the folds and creases in the fabric of interpersonal interaction that conventional movies deliberately try to iron out.
Not simply a deconstruction of the romance genre, the film depicts and questions the held perceptions and expectations of its protagonists – Michael and Jackie – and even more radically, those of its audience. To clarify, one of the many life problems the film confronts lies not with perceptions and expectations but the reality that people want those perceptions and expectations to remain for the most part fixed, unchanging and intolerant. Throughout the course of the date, Noonan shows that Michael and Jackie want to see themselves, each other, and the date in particular ways, but perhaps even more important, Noonan is quite aware that the audience also wants to see Michael and Jackie, their date, and the film itself in a particular way. These “ways” usually lean towards the safety and comfort of the familiar and the final. Most audiences seem to take for granted (or deny and avoid the reality altogether) that relationships require a deeper commitment and a lot more work than merely being able to “relate” to something or someone.
Noonan slowly breaks down these held perceptions and expectations through a variety of ways. For example, unlike the “everything must be established within the first few minutes of the film” rule in conventional film, by withholding any background information about Michael and Jackie, he places us directly in the same position as them. Instead of learning about someone as one would through a film, we learn about the other person as one would in life, gradually, tentatively, making our adjustments, reacting, responding, changing our minds, feeling our way as we go along. (The effect is literally as if we walked in on the couple in the middle of their date). Another method avoids the predictability of conventional film language by favoring a balance between long shots showing constant character movement or emphasizing character stillness within the apartment space as well as sparse, but measured closer shots showing subtle and multilayered emotional shifts within the characters. Unlike the one dimensional spatial certainty of establishing shots and the one dimensional emotional certainty of conventional close-ups, these visual choices hold the viewer on the outside wondering, not being able to make a clear cut conclusion of a character’s “character”. They also constantly help redefine the characters relationships with each other and the audience’s relationship with the characters. The most noticeable method comes through the actors shifting and dangerous performances interpreting a nuanced and multilayered screenplay. Simply saying hello leaves itself open to many levels of expressive interpretation and misunderstanding. Simply expressing what one means and meaning what one expresses does not result in the immediate and easy understandings of conventional films. The film shows the true complexities and difficulties of actual interpersonal communication.
Noonan connects the tyranny of expectations of a film to the tyranny of expectations of life. He firmly reminds everyone that to be locked into certain perceptions and expectations of people and life may maintain the illusion of control, peace and safety but ultimately leaves no room for learning from other ways of living and no possibility of emotional and spiritual growth.
Denying all who participate any easy “moral of the story” lessons and cheap gratifications of insight, Noonan pushes everyone to gather enough courage and sensitivity to navigate the honest, subtle, awkward, uncomfortable, painful and deep interactions between a specific man and a specific woman who reveal the most vulnerable parts of themselves to each other and (if we are open enough) to us as well. This unfolds slowly and gradually in uncharted areas where the only maps are one’s own experiences of men and women drawn on the sand (if one has already drawn the lines that far) and the only directions are one’s own knowledge of living dissolving into air.