With Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation throwing the spotlight on screenwriting guru Robert McKee's ironclad rules of storytelling, it's exciting to watch a talented young writer/director behave as if McKee had never existed—as if you can pretty much tell a story any way you want to on-screen as long as it's absorbing.
Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity (United Artists), which is part of the low-budget, high-talent InDigEnt digital initiative, is really just a sketch of a movie—or, rather, three sketches about three women, based on three of Miller's short stories in the Grove Press collection of the same name. Each episode builds to a tidy epiphany, like something out of a college-writing seminar, and the film is packed with narration lifted straight off the page. The effect is often laughably amateurish—I literally snorted three or four times.
And yet the movie finally won me over. It has been shot with a glancing, vaporish intimacy by Ellen Kuras; it features three intensely present actresses (Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, and Fairuza Balk); and it has been shaped with intelligence. Miller isn't content to let her camera linger allusively over surfaces. She wants to get everything onto the screen that she got into her stories—all the narrator's insights, all the character's thoughts. That might ultimately be a doomed mission—I think it is a doomed mission. But she does pull it off in a couple of places, and when she does, she reminds you that the syntax of cinema is more malleable than anything dreamed of in Robert McKee's philosophy.
After a lovely, wordless prologue (three little girls swinging at different speeds on a swing set—the metaphoric central image), the narrator (John Ventimiglia) announces himself big-time with a rhapsody on the ass of Delia (Kyra Sedgwick). She's a highly sexualized young woman who uses her ripe bottom as a source of power over men, before finally marrying one who beats her.
The narrator tells you about Delia's upbringing and the movie illustrates it. Ho hum. But just when the literary approach begins to pall, Miller pulls off a startling effect. Delia has been severely battered and locked in the cellar, where she hears her children wailing for her for two hours. The narrator says, "It was her kids' pain that broke through her inertia," and what follows is a series of still frames: of Delia waking her children, packing, stealing out the door past her blacked-out husband. Yes, it's a narrated slide show, but every one of those slides penetrates to the emotional core of the moment—and arrests it, holds the pain up jewellike for our scrutiny.
Although I loved Sedgwick's lascivious fanged grin and slightly wizened demeanor, the "Delia" section has its share of working-class clichés and a lame, reductive ending in which Delia is simultaneously empowered and doomed by giving a handjob to a loser in a parked car. The third section, featuring Balk as Paula, a woman running from the scene of a horrific accident, has a thin story and an even more cornball (this time life-affirming) epiphany.
In between is the best, most nuanced segment, featuring Posey as Greta, a sneakily ambitious book editor married to a too-nice, too-dull man. Greta, the estranged daughter of a powerful and moralistic lawyer (Ron Leibman) who casually dumped her mom, hoped that she could make her peace with the slow lane (and sexual fidelity). But when success arrives in the form of a best-selling pansexual literary hotshot (Joel de la Fuente), Greta knows she was born to be bad.
Posey's blend of innocence and meanness is captivatingly funny—even if the narrator is constantly intruding with lines from Miller's (excellent) story like, "A toxic blend of anxiety and elation was building up in her skull." I love that description, but it's not fair to pin an actress down like that, or to take away an audience's right to read things in an actor's face for itself. Personal Velocity is fettered by a writer's sensibility. Its beats are writer's beats, and even when its images have no corresponding narration, they might as well have.
But if the movie is finally stuck halfway been cinema and prose, Miller proves that it's not an unfertile place to linger. A film that merely gives you the pleasure of a good short story is less mere than much "pure cinema." In the spirit of Charlie Kaufman, it will be fun to watch her adapt.