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Some Basic Feminist Thing

September 10th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Personal Velocity, 2002, poster Personal Velocity DVD

Personal Velocity (2002)
Screenplay by Rebecca Miller, based on her book
Directed by Rebecca Miller
Produced by Blue Magic Pictures/ Goldheart Pictures/ InDigEnt
Running time: 86 minutes

So, What’s This About?
In the first of three portraits of women in a state of flux, Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) leaves an abusive husband with her three children in tow. She moves into the garage of a childhood friend and takes a job as a waitress, where Delia gains control of her life by reasserting herself sexually. Greta (Parker Posey) is a moderately successful book editor plucked out of obscurity by a red hot novelist to work with him on his latest book. Her changing fortunes gain Greta the respect of a powerful attorney father (Ron Leibman) but further alienate her from an unremarkable husband (Tim Guinee).

Paula (Fairuza Balk) drives upstate in a daze with a mute teenage hitchhiker (Lou Taylor Pucci) in the passenger seat. She reaches the home of her mother (Patti D’Arbanville) whom Paula hasn’t seen since fleeing to New York City two years ago. Now expecting a baby with her compassionate Haitian boyfriend (Seth Gilliam), Paula is distraught by the death of a man she chatted up at a bar and was struck by a car while walking her down a sidewalk. Paula is pulled back to earth when she realizes her scarred passenger is in a far more damaged condition than she is.

Personal Velocity, 2002, Lou Taylor Pucci, Fairuza Balk

Who Made It?
Rebecca Miller is the only child of playwright Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath. A Yale graduate, Miller for a time chose painting over writing, but while on an art fellowship in Germany at the age of 21, discovered a love for filmmaking. She developed her craft by making short films and — with her father’s agent lining up auditions — earned a living as an actress, winning roles in Regarding Henry (1991) as Harrison Ford’s mistress and Consenting Adults (1992) as Kevin Spacey’s mysterious wife. Miller’s first feature film as a writer/director Angela won her a Dramatic Filmmaker’s Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, but her screenplays went unproduced.

Miller started a family with her husband Daniel Day-Lewis and turned away from screenwriting. Producer/director Gary Winick — whose New York based company InDigEnt financed low budget features to be shot on mini-DV — called Miller to see if she had any projects to contribute. While none of her scripts fit the InDigEnt mandate, Miller sent Winick three of seven short stories from her forthcoming book Grove Press was set to publish in 2002. Adapted into a screenplay and directed by Miller in 17 days and on a shoestring of only $150,000, Personal Velocity was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2002 and would put her on the map as a filmmaker.

Personal Velocity, 2002, Parker Posey

How’d They Do It?

The segueway Rebecca Miller took from painting to acting to screenwriting would change again in the late ‘90s. The writer-director recalled, “I had basically given up, at least for the time being, the idea of making films, because it was so hard for me to get my films made at that point. I had made one film, called Angela, which had won the Filmmaker’s Prize at Sundance.” She added, “Angela did well with some critics and things, but it didn’t make money. It was a very uncommercial film … So I had gotten to the point where I just felt like I didn’t want to just wait and wait to make films and tell stories. All I did all day was write these screenplays that nobody seemed to want. So I decided to write short stories.”

Several years passed and Miller received a phone call from producer-director Gary Winick, who had launched a new production company. Winick recalled, “InDigEnt was inspired after I saw the Dogme film, The Celebration. And I also thought about how John Cassavetes worked in the ’60s, with the 16mm cameras and the repertoire of actors and the small crews. I thought with this new medium that there was an opportunity here, because in New York there’s this great theater and independent film community. My idea was to form a collective where everybody gets paid the same amount, but also owns a piece of the film.”

Personal Velocity, 2002, Kyra Sedgwick

Winick added, “Creatively, I was interested in using these new tools for experienced filmmakers to tell stories they normally couldn’t tell, or to tell stories in a different way because of these tools. I went to John Sloss, my lawyer, and we became partners and we partnered with IFC. IFC was the perfect partner because they wanted to be a part of the DV movement.” Winick’s plan had been to produce 10 films a year for $1 million each. 19 InDigEnt films ended up being made from 2000 to 2007 for roughly $250,000 each, including Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001) starring Ethan Hawke & Uma Thurman and the award winning Pieces of April (2003) with Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson.

Miller recalled, “I was sick of writing screenplays that no one was going to make, I said, ‘If you want to look at the stories that I’m writing, I could maybe do something out of one of them.’ So I gave him a few stories from the collection and he read them and he really liked them. He ended up giving them to Caroline Kaplan, who was running InDigEnt with him, and they ended up green lighting the film. It was also Gary’s idea to use three stories at once and make a trilogy, and when he said that my mind took off.” After laboring intensely on her book for two years, Miller adapted a screenplay for Personal Velocity in two months.

Personal Velocity, 2002

“I chose the ones that were the most dynamic in terms of action, where there was conflict that was externalized, because some of them were very interior. And also where I thought that there was a good clash; like I thought there was a very good clash between Delia, which is a story about a working-class woman struggling with an abusive marriage, and Greta, which is about an upper-middle class woman struggling with the clash between her own ambition and a marriage which is feeling increasingly stultifying, and finally her ambition propels her out of her own marriage.”

Producer Lemore Syvan — who’d founded Goldheart Pictures in 1995 and Blue Magic Pictures in 2002 – came aboard, with InDigEnt’s Gary Winick and Alexis Alexanian also serving as producers. While Winick maintained that the difficult subject matter Miller was exploring fit the intimacy and thrift of digital filmmaking perfectly, the format presented a host of challenges. Syvan admitted, “Well, the question came up every day when we were shooting Personal Velocity: why can’t we just shoot this on Super 16? But Personal Velocity was designed for video. The way the movie was born was by a mandate that was given to us by InDigEnt, which we all know is a company that makes movies on digital.”

Personal Velocity, 2002

Cinematographer Ellen Kuras recalled, “I had to talk to Rebecca about the limitations of the medium. Having worked on Bamboozled, I knew what we could and couldn’t get away with. On the wide-angle part of the lens, the image just falls apart, especially when you go to a 35mm blowup, so I told her that we really wanted to shoot on the longer part of the lens. You can’t verify the focus on the cameras; what’s on the viewfinder is not 1-to-1 with what you’re getting on the chip. The contrast is hard to deal with. And when you shoot at a certain shutter speed, you get this kind of stepping of the lines in the image.”

With a budget of $150,000, Personal Velocity commenced shooting May 2001 in New York using two Sony DSR-PD150P cameras. Ellen Kuras revealed, “I knew that creatively, my palette would be very limited. I just said, ‘You know what, I’m shooting with this mini DV medium, I’m going to think of these as a short story and I’m going to try to make it look and feel like a poem.’ And that would be my way of saying anything goes. ‘I’m making a poem so … ‘ That means I don’t have to form full sentences. That means I don’t have to put periods where you’re supposed to put periods at the end of sentences. That means I’m not going to do what everybody says you’re supposed to do. I’m just going to do what I think feels right for the movie.”

Personal Velocity, 2002, Parker Posey, Tim Guinee

When screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2002, Personal Velocity was greeted as a sensation. Rebecca Miller was awarded the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Ellen Kuras the Cinematography Award. Miller would dedicate the film to her mother, who passed away days after the festival. She mused, “I probably will be thinking and talking and writing about my mother for the rest of my life. That’s one thing I find about having children — it does unlock a door that separates you from other women who’ve had children. There’s some basic feminist thing that’s the same for all women who’ve had children, it doesn’t matter what their class is or what their situation is.”

Opening November 2002 in the United States, Personal Velocity met a mixed response from critics. Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times: “The cumulative effect is that of watching misspent lives disintegrate before your eyes. Ms. Miller’s canny accomplishment is a triumph, giving the material weight and heart. This is one of the finest pictures of the year.” Mark Caro, The Chicago Tribune: “Miller’s movie has its moments of impressive velocity, but it never quite takes off.” Scott Tobias, The Onion A.V. Club: “Taken together, the stories are a watershed of feminist clichés, composed of half-hour sections that are too tidy by half, and overlaid with writerly voiceovers that suggest an author too enamored of her own narration.”

Personal Velocity, 2002, Fairuza Balk

Should I Care?
Never expanding beyond 43 theaters in the U.S., Personal Velocity grossed $811,299 domestically, but became Rebecca Miller’s calling card to the film industry, evenly demonstrating her unique voice as a writer and intuitiveness as a director, casting Parker Posey and enabling her to deliver the strongest performance of her career. This is a success as a project, but uneven and a bit appalling as a film. Miller’s prose — read by John Ventimiglia (Artie Bucco from The Sopranos) — has a simple clarity and keeps things interesting, but there’s no getting around how sloppy some of Miller’s narrative sensibilities pan out or how bad digital video makes them look.

The second segment — featuring Parker Posey as a daffy but distraught book editor who begins cutting the fat from her newly empowered life — is the best reason to see the film, with Posey coolly emitting the wit and sensuality that the other two segments desperately lack. If there was some confusion over how harried and unfocused this material was at its core, the Radio Shack technology imposed on the filmmakers by InDigEnt doesn’t help make Personal Velocity any more watchable. The fact that neither Miller nor her producer Lemore Syvan has made another movie on DV says everything about the limitations of the format.

Personal Velocity, 2002, Ron Leibman, Parker Posey

Where’d You Get All of This?
“Storytelling By Women Filmmakers Evolves with DV” By Philippa Bourke. MoviesByWomen.com, August 2002

“Digital Portraits”
By John Calhoun. LiveDesign, 1 November 2002

“Miller’s Own Tale” By Gaby Woods. The Observer, 9 March 2003

“Crazy Like a Fox”
By Jennifer M. Wood. MovieMaker Magazine, 3 February 2007

“Bucking the Digital Trend” By Pat Thompson. MovieMaker Magazine, 3 February 2007

“Rebecca Miller on Personal Velocity: Three Portraits
By John Gaspard. Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts, 20 November 2008

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on short story · Drunk scene · Father/daughter relationship · Mother/daughter relationship · Road trip

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Sep 11, 2009 at 7:03 am

    “The fact that neither Miller nor her producer Lemore Syvan has made another movie on DV says everything about the limitations of the format.”

    I don’t know if it was limitations as much as it was the fact they were able to work with higher budgets. Once a filmmaker makes a name for themself, they no longer have to worry about making a film for as cheaply as you can.

    The DV of 2002 was lacking (although I remember seeing this on DVD and not even realizing it was shot on video). But today, it has improved quite a bit, and gotten a lot cheaper to shoot on DV.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 11, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Jim: If I’m caught up in a good story, I barely notice the camera techniques or film stock at all. I didn’t realize that The Hurt Locker used so much hand-held “shaky cam” until my girlfriend pointed it out to me. DV doesn’t keep me from enjoying 28 Days Later whenever it’s on TV.

    So, I think you’re right. Even with the technology being used eight years ago, mini-DV in itself does not doom a movie to mediocrity. I think what dooms a movie to mediocrity is a script that is such a combustible mess and takes itself way too seriously. If I amended my review, I’d probably focus on that aspect and cut the palm-held cameras a break.

  • 3 Tommy Salami // Sep 15, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    I saw this in theaters because my cousin Lou plays the “mute” hitchhiker; and while his character is traumatized and very quiet, he is not mute. It’s a bit of a walk-through role, but it reinforces Balk’s bad choices with men, who she wants to mother, but end up using her.
    The Delia sequence was quite good as well, with some unforgettable visuals, such as the falsies on the clothesline.

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