Some filmmakers apparently forget the elementary and obvious fact that their medium originated in nonverbal narratives and flourished in silence long before the introduction of spoken dialogue (which many critics and historians initially regarded as a retrogressive, rather than a progressive, step), and, therefore, film should always rely on its visual possibilities. Whatever its merits, Personal Velocity, which arrives here decorated with prizes, aptly illustrates the problems caused by reliance on the verbal, rather than the visual, elements in its essentially literal adaptation of a literary work.
Rebecca Miller, who wrote the trio of short stories on which the film is based, also wrote and directed the movie, which means that although she may have earned the accolades her work has received, she also bears responsibility for its several problems. Those faults mostly derive from a discernible retreat from the opportunity to reshape the source material into imaginative cinema.
Miller tells her stories in three separate segments, linked by the common mention of a concrete event that occurs in an almost casual, off-screen reference in the first two "chapters," but figures importantly in the third. The small town in upstate New York, which appears in at least some of the scenes in all three stories, also connects them through some vague and not entirely meaningful geographical similarity. Finally, and most importantly, the major characters in all three parts --- though otherwise unrelated --- all experience some level of desperation and, for completely different reasons, confront a point of crisis in their relationships and their lives.
The first, and easily the best, episode, "Delia," involves a woman named Delia Shunt (Kyra Sedgwick). Once the easiest girl in high school, she leaves her brutally abusive husband for a life near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The second story, "Greta," shows a successful New York book editor (Parker Posey), who discovers that her ability to trim an author's wordy prose also enables her to edit her husband right out of her life --- as easily as cutting a redundant paragraph. The third segment, which in a sense concludes the cycle of departures and terminations, deals with a young woman (Fairuza Balk) coping with the twin shocks of pregnancy and a close encounter with a sudden, inexplicable death. She seems the one character to achieve some measure of redemption, even grace.
The filmmakers shot the movie in digital video format, which not only costs a great deal less than normal 35 mm stock, but also imparts a special gritty immediacy to the image. The size and portability of the video camera allows the operators to shoot within constricted, small spaces --- the movie constantly travels inside automobiles with the characters, for example --- and employ ambient light, which creates a sense of authenticity and naturalism in the people and action. The director of photography also relies heavily on extremely tight close-ups, numerous freeze frames, and even frequent pixilation.
However, the equipment and technique tend to wash out the color and obscure the resolution, so that much of the picture appears hasty, fuzzy, and amateurish. The close-ups on faces and objects tend to blend all the images together without distinction or significance, and the jumpy hand-held camera rapidly turns into a tiresome distraction, shifting point of view for no particular reason, calling attention to itself instead of conveying a sense of ordinary reality. Independent film far too often mistakes mere technique for art, so that the hand-held camera becomes an excuse for movement for its own sake, shooting from odd angles and unorthodox setups simply because it's possible, rather than meaningful or even functional.
Worst of all, the stories lose their sharpness and richness through the insistent, prolix voice-over narration, which helpfully tells us everything the characters are doing, what happened to them in the past, what they are thinking and feeling, and so forth --- while neatly canceling out most of the visual narrative. The best story in the trilogy, "Delia," a tough, sad, painfully true account of an abused woman at the end of her resources finding confidence in the assertion of her sexual power, loses much of its point and meaning in the narrator's nonstop babbling.
As in the other segments, the soundtrack interprets almost everything the camera shows, thus preventing the actors from acting and the dialogue from achieving its full meaning. This suggests that the writer-director may have lost faith in the possibilities of her own work.
Personal Velocity constantly looks as if it should, and, perhaps, even could be better that it is --- its sense of the sad difficulties of ordinary life certainly seems rich enough for powerful visual development. But, unfortunately, Rebecca Miller apparently forgot she was making a movie.
Personal Velocity, starring Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk, David Warshofsky, Leo Fitzpatrick, Tim Guinee, Patti D'Arbanville, Ben Shankman, Joel De La Fuente, Marceline Hugot, Ben Shenkman, Brian Tarantina, Lou Taylor Pucci, Josh Philip Weinstein, Wallace Shawn, Ron Liebman, John Ventimiglia; based on the book Personal Velocity, by Rebecca Miller; written and directed by Rebecca Miller. Little Theatre.
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