Obstructed reView: What Happened Was…
I love claustrophobic movies. Just a handful of characters. One or two locations.Â Conflict arises and the characters canât escape each other. It usually gets ugly, uncomfortable; the film has to maintain pressure and pace. Most movies can only keep this up for so long and then cut to another group of people doing something more mundane. Small casts are a dangerous thing in Hollywood; tends to imply a lot of talking, no car chases and precious little murder (at least until the end). Thatâs not a pitch that many producers would take a swing at. Spreading out the screen-time to include two hundred characters in half a dozen cities allows a director or producer to more easily hide weak-links and mistakes made during the casting process. Just a few people means just a couple of story-lines.Â Experiments in structure are more easily pulled off if there is credit or blame to share among a large number of variables. There are a few movies where every single actor on film is brilliant. Sleuth is one (not that one, the good one). Whoâs Afraid of Virginia Woolf is another. Every speaking actor in each of those was nominated for Oscars. The Sunset Limited was a nice surprise. All of these Iâve mentioned are based on stage plays, where small casts are desired. Theyâre the norm in an art form more strapped for cash and less dependent on spectacle than movies. Still, when a play becomes a movie, two characters are suddenly thirty-five. A terrific play about five women couldnât possibly succeed as a film unless we add a few dozen men (or at least half a dozen). Thatâs Hollywoodâs default setting. God of Carnage got a shortened name for the movie, but a lengthened cast list.
Alien and Lifeboat have slightly small casts and everyone is HoF. Itâs what makes those movies unique. If they were made today, weâd add huge launch scenes where the passengers kiss their families goodbye. There would be cutaway moments where rescue efforts feature fifty people running around frantically, solving logistical problems under tight deadlines. Music by Danny Elfman or Michael Kamen.
My favorite Bergman movie is Persona, with credits so sparse as to make you uncomfortable. Silent Running feels almost like a street-corner one-man band (with about that much grace and musicality). 2001: A Space Odyssey or even The Black Hole get closer to the core of what âaloneâ really is. Even in those movies, like in the brilliant Repulsion, there are a ton of people floating around the edges of the story. For my money, the movie that comes closest to presenting an idea of what loneliness and isolation might do to a person is Moon, but even that has a cast of nearly a dozen. Stand-up features like Delirious (NSFW: Family Cookout) or Live on the Sunset Strip (NSFW unless you work on the Sunset Strip) or this (Cosby, totally SFW) or this (NSFW: Cho) or this (NSFW: Izzard) are in their own world, with the audience creating a literal cast of thousands. Fans of the late Spaulding Gray (I am one and I imagine so is Michael Ruppert) should all see Soderberghâs And Everything is Going Fine. I think itâs different than what Iâm trying to talk about, but worth a watch.
My current favorite small-cast claustrophobic flick is What Happened WasâŠ . A film from writer/director/star Tom Noonan (and based on his play), the cast is a trim two people (even the often-mocked My Dinner with Andre has a couple more faces). Noonan is partnered with the fantastic Karen Sillas as an awkward and lonely couple of single people on a correspondingly awkward and lonely first date. They struggle to achieve a bit of common language while defying and retreating through their individual fears and self-doubt. Despite that description, itâs funny and comes across as simple and honest.
Dinner is at her place. Uncomfortable work chit-chat and cocktails and subtle soul-killing background-check banter becomes quiet dinner-table clatter. No dessert. Wine and quiet fencing across a coffee table. Then in adjoining chairs until thereâs finally a sweet and natural moment that finds the couple sitting together on the couch for the first time. This is initially a movie of the quiet climax, small victories.
Itâs here where we notice (not for the first time) that thereâs no music to tell us how we should feel about these two. Upon repeated viewings the street noise is more noticeable, cresting and receding as needed. I love the lack of music in movies. When such an overused film tool is suddenly absent, weâre not sure how to react. The sounds we make as people become so much more important: pages turning, silverware, breathing and footsteps on dusty hardwood. These are all ways to punctuate the story weâre witnessing. What Happened WasâŠ uses these daily sounds in ways few other films can be bothered to try. Another welcome departure from usual Hollywood methodology is Noonanâs use of the close-up. Close-up shots in this film are not the default setting. Rather, we see the full-bodied nervousness of 6â 6â Noonan and Sillas as they maneuver through her cramped studio apartment. When the camera does swoop in, it stays for a good long time. When Sillasâ Jackie reads Noonanâs Michael a childrenâs story sheâs written, we see every tic and wrinkle around her eyes and mouth, watch every pause for breath and the effect is hypnotizing. When the camera moves back a few feet, weâre disappointed, but grateful for the chance to breathe a bit.
Soon, these people touch for the first time. The moment comes out of another awkward pause and is both surprising and somehow tragic. Itâs the last time in the movie that we approach a comfortable moment. Weâre desperate for it to last. Weâve worked so hard to get here but it is just a flash of unrestrained happiness and then weâre carried along to an ending thatâs as far from Hollywoodâs comfort zone as the cast size. The movie is available on Netflix streaming and runs a quick 90 minutes. Get to it.
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