Personal Velocity (2002, Rebecca Miller)

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits. Writer and director Miller (adapting her own collection of short stories) ties together three very different stories, each with its own structure, each with its own narrative approach. Velocity is short too–under ninety minutes–so Miller is fast to establish her protagonists. The biggest disconnect, of course, is the narration; John Ventimiglia narrates these three women’s stories. It’s a close, omnipresent narration too. Otherwise, even though men both pervade and infect the film and the protagonists’ lives, the film’s entirely from its female protagonists’ perspectives. Even when the narration is doing fill-in exposition on a male character, it’s always from over the female protagonist’s shoulder. Even if she’s not present. Miller and editor Sabine Hoffman go wild on the summary flashbacks in the second story.

The film starts serious and sincere. Kyra Sedgwick is a thirty-four year-old, low income housewife with three kids and an abusive husband (David Warshofsky). Miller’s even cruel about revealing the abuse. She and editor Hoffman introduce it as a glance, something for the viewer to fixate on or ignore. Michael Rohatyn’s music–maybe the most affecting in the first story–doesn’t slow down, doesn’t change tone. They may be poor but they love each… then it stops and Miller throws the viewer for Personal Velocity’s only “loop.” Less than five minutes into the film, she dismisses the idea she owes the viewer any expectation for the narrative. The rest of Sedgwick’s story, where Sedgwick’s shockingly unlikable, is about dismissing the viewer’s expectations for characters as well now.

Personal Velocity is digital video. It’s very digital video. Ellen Kuras does light the heck out of it, but she and Miller are going for specific level of verisimilitude. The first story takes place in upstate New York. There’s an expectation of Americana and Kuras and Miller make sure it works as an appropriate setting for Sedgwick’s performance. Because Sedgwick doesn’t tear up the film, she slow burns. For the first story, the film is about seeing what Sedgwick’s character is going to do (Velocity is like eighty percent hard character study) and how Sedgwick is going to essay those actions.

When Sedgwick’s story ends, there’s a feeling of “time’s up.” The sturdy first act Miller gives to the segment doesn’t come with a third. She sort of slices into the second act and pulls the narration higher. Sedgwick’s left a bit of a mystery.

Then Parker Posey’s story. It’s the most different in the film. Its narration is very different, its editing is very different. It’s a light romantic drama set in New York City with book editor Posey and her doctoral student husband Tim Guinee. She’s a disappointment to high-powered lawyer dad Ron Leibman, but then she becomes a success. The narration walks Posey through almost every action, every decision. The editing becomes far more creative–freeze frames, both for action and summary, building on the first story’s occasional usage–the pace is different. The tone is different. Different, different, different. Why is the difference important?

Because the differences between first and second stories help set the film up for the third. The second story isn’t just less dangerous than the first one, more erudite, it also changes how Miller’s going to have the protagonists relate to the viewer. Miller changes how she’s portraying these characters from story to story. The second story is the closest the film gets to having fun–Miller, Kuras, and Hoffman are doing slow motion, they’re doing the freeze frames, there’s flashbacks; there’s a lot of enthusiasm. By the end of it, the film has held the viewer’s hand into getting inside Posey’s perspective. Thanks to the filmmaking, thanks to the writing, thanks to Posey, Miller has gone from outside the protagonist’s perspective to inside it and then turned it around. The viewer understands the character’s decision-making without the narration to explain it anymore.

It’s an important change because the third story mostly drops the narration. It also speeds up a lot. Fairuza Balk has a lot of action, not much summary. Some quick flashbacks, but the third story is all about Balk and what’s going on in her head. A fifth of it has got to just be Balk in close-up, thinking. As the viewer gets to know her better, they get to know what she’s thinking too. It’s a very gentle story. Miller keeps all three acts intact, making it different from the first story, but the lack of narration makes it very different from the second story. But Miller’s really just leaving room for reflection in the third story. It’s about the viewer identifying, relating, considering. Miller sort of uses Balk as a guide. The story even starts out in the city and then goes to the country. It’s completely unrelated–narratively–to the first two stories. Yet Miller needs the viewer to make the connections to succeed.

She does, thanks to Balk, thanks to the crew, thanks to David Patrick Kelly, Patti D’Arbanville, and Lou Taylor Pucci. Everything works out really well, which is something since Hoffman changes up the editing style yet again in the third story. These stylistic changes mean Miller and Hoffman have to introduce them and establish them while the stories are already trying to get the protagonists and ground situations set up. Personal Velocity moves very fast, very pragmatically. But only in the pace. Visually, Miller’s an exuberant director. Lots of visuals, lots of imagery. She’s setting up the best angle into her individual protagonist’s stories.

Acting-wise–Balk’s best, then Sedgwick, then Posey, or you could reverse it, or just mix it up and pick one. The viewer’s relationship with each protagonist is so different, they’re all three just phenomenal. Ventimiglia’s narration is great. Supporting cast is all good. They’re not as essential in the first two stories as the third. Though Leo Fitzpatrick does get a touching monologue of sorts.

Personal Velocity’s fantastic. Miller, her cast, her crew, all do awesome work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rebecca Miller; screenplay by Miller, based on her book; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; edited by Sabine Hoffman; music by Michael Rohatyn; production designer, Judy Becker; produced by Lemore Syvan, Gary Winick, and Alexis Alexanian; released by United Artists.

Starring Kyra Sedgwick (Delia Shunt), Parker Posey (Greta Herskowitz), Fairuza Balk (Paula), Ron Leibman (Avram Herskowitz), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Gelb), David Warshofsky (Kurt Wurtzle), Leo Fitzpatrick (Mylert), Tim Guinee (Lee), Patti D’Arbanville (Celia), Ben Shenkman (Max), Joel de la Fuente (Thavi Matola), Marceline Hugot (Pam), Brian Tarantina (Pete Shunt), Seth Gilliam (Vincent), Lou Taylor Pucci (Kevin), Mara Hobel (Fay), and David Patrick Kelly (Peter); narrated by John Ventimiglia.


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