"We all have our own personal velocity."
Personal Velocity is Rebecca Miller's (daughter of playwright Arthur Miller) film adaptation of her own book of the same name, a collection of seven thematically related stories about women pushing towards epiphany and, in the process, reinventing their own lives. The film adapts two of the seven stories and offers up a brand new one.
Facts of the Case
1. Delia—Played by Kyra Sedgwick (Singles), Delia is a former high school slut, now married, who takes her kids and flees from her abusive husband to a friend's place in upstate New York. We watch her pain as she tries to let go of her love for her husband and begin a new life.
2. Greta—Slaving away editing cookbooks, Greta's (Parker Posey, Best In Show) career takes a sudden upswing when successful author Thavi Matola requests her as the editor of his forthcoming novel. Her ambition ignited, Greta finds herself behaving like the high-powered father she resents and pulling away from her salt-of-the-earth mediocrity of a husband.
3. Paula—As the story opens, newly-pregnant Paula (Fairuza Balk, Almost Famous) picks up a young, gaunt hitchhiker. In a state of shock from having been witness to an accident in which a man walking beside her on the street was hit and killed by a car, Paula struggles to regain her grasp on reality. When she realizes the hitchhiking boy is a runaway who's been severely beaten, her caring for him brings into focus the future course of her life.
Upon entering, Personal Velocity looks like a soapbox film, a didactic mess, a forum for the director to air all the women-as-victims beefs that set the agenda in university Women's Studies programs. Its title and cover art suggest a film in which intellectual concepts and political stances move about in the guise of women, resolute, self-actualized. It might, in other words, be the Lifetime movie to end all Lifetime movies. It certainly deals with women struggling to find themselves, one abused by her husband, one ruthlessly selfish in her pursuit of career, one pregnant, confused, her mother's affection usurped by a jerk of a stepfather. Rebecca Miller has an eye for detail, though, and a taste for nuance. She's never so crass to sacrifice the humanity of her characters in the name of reductive moralizing.
In Delia, it's not the morality, politics, or gender inequality of spousal abuse that fascinates Miller—that's the stuff of textbooks and academic journals—it's the fact that Delia loves her husband, whether he hits her or not. Miller seeks to show us the moment at which her heroine accepts that, for her own welfare as well as her children's, she must leave her husband forever even though it means letting go the good times as well as the bad. What Miller explores is why it's so difficult to make a decision that's so cleanly rational, a no-brainer for anyone outside the emotion involved. But Delia grieves. Sedgwick plays the role passionately, honestly. And Miller makes us watch it all in long takes broken only by flashbacks to the happy and hurtful moments of a marriage on its way towards collapse.
Greta turns the myth of the ambitious, self-actualizing woman on its head by presenting us a character aware of her own selfishness as her career advances and her marriage crumbles. Miller makes no excuses for her hard-driving heroine. That she's abandoning a decent husband because he doesn't fit with the literati and power-brokers among whom she now flits is both despicable and inevitable. In an expertly understated performance, Parker Posey expresses Greta's pain at having to choose at all. Whether or not she's made the right decision is anyone's guess.
"[The film's producer Gary Winick] was talking about how it would be a pity to lose the language of the stories, and I thought maybe using narration would unify the three and also give you that third dimension where you know more about the characters than they know themselves…"—Rebecca Miller, In Conversation
And so we come to Personal Velocity's greatest flaw. Even before watching the featurette in which Miller makes that statement, I could feel that the voice-over narration was rooted in a lack of willingness to let go of the prose—the words upstaged what I was seeing on screen. Delia in particular suffers from too much telling and not enough showing. Miller's prose is strong, but film is a visual medium and large portions of Delia feel like a book on tape punctuated with images. Greta presents a more successful integration, rarely telling us something without also showing, but that only serves to make one question whether the narration is necessary at all: if I'm seeing her past, do I need it explained to me also?
What's particularly frustrating is that Miller's is not a case of a writer pretending to direct although she's unqualified. Despite her literary pedigree, she proves quite capable of telling a story visually. She's got a firm grasp on film convention, as well as a respect for the life and vitality an actor brings to the words on a page. She was, I'm guessing, too close to the material to make a complete success of adapting it from one medium to another.
"So then I wrote 'Paula'. It was the only story I wrote knowing that it might be part of the film."—Rebecca Miller, In Conversation
This, too, was obvious before Miller stated it in the featurette because Paula works so much better than the other two segments. It's far more grounded in the present tense, its occasional glimpses into the past expressed visually. Narration kicks off the segment, but quickly fades away, never to return…and one doesn't miss it a bit.
Fairuza Balk benefits tremendously from the narration-free environment. Her performance is strongest because it's allowed to speak for itself. Nearly everything we know about Paula we learn through Balk's eyes, mannerisms, voice, and the way she responds to the messes thrown at her. That her performance stands above the excellent work of both Sedgwick and Posey is not only a testament to the more cinematic approach taken in Paula, but also to Balk's talent and skill. Outshining her co-stars is no mean feat.
Personal Velocity, a product of InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Independent Film Channel) was shot on the fly with small, handheld digital video cameras. The effect is an image that's sometimes soft and carries a fair amount of grain. It's certainly inferior to the resolution of 35mm, but I'm not sure that's a fair comparison. Shooting Personal Velocity on 35mm stock wouldn't have been possible on its micro-budget. A more appropriate comparison would be to 16mm film, and I think the digital video comes out on top in that case. Ellen Kuras's (Summer of Sam, Blow) cinematography is artful, as is Sabine Hoffman's editing, giving the film a visual power and beauty that belies its low budget. The DVD transfers—one in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the other full screen—appear perfect, any grain and pixelation rooted in the source.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio could just as well be stereo. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's far from dynamic.
The disc comes with an impressive amount of extras for such a small film. We get two commentaries: one with Miller, the other with Kuras and gaffer John Nadeau. Miller's is dry and fairly boring. She's so much more engaging as she chats with Posey and Balk in the In Conversation featurette, I wish those two had been included in the chat track. Kuras's and Nadeau's track is more technical, focusing on the logistics and challenges shooting a digital video feature, but also more interesting.
In Conversation is 30 minutes of Miller, Posey, and Balk waxing philosophical about the film. Sedgwick appears in a separately taped segment as she wasn't available to sit down with the other three.
Creating Personal Velocity runs 14 minutes and is a raw behind-the-scenes video of the film's production. It's humorous while also giving decent insight into the production's run 'n' gun nature.
Personal Velocity stumbles at times in its leap from book to film, but Rebecca Miller's unsentimental honesty, coupled with standout performances by three skilled actresses, make it worth 85 minutes of your time.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Rebecca Miller
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