Personal Atrocity provides us with an opportunity to discuss the difference between film directors who are strictly film school and writers who take to directing because they want a new audience. Of course, I don’t officially know why Rebecca Miller has decided to get into films, but clearly she is a writer first, or at least, she writes things. But we’ll get back to this.
Personal Velocity, a film by Rebecca Miller, is divided into three separate stories, which don’t seem at all integrated. And if they are, I didn’t get it. Having three small films instead of one big one prevents Miller from using the full hour and a half to develop a set of characters and build on contiguous themes. Because of this, there can be no unearthly payoff at the end like Andrei Rublev. But Rublev is three fucking hours long!? My God man! You’d need an ass of steel! And hold on, there’s plenty of very short films with great momentum, great payoffs. Whacked! by Rolf Gibbs, for example, is only five minutes—five minutes to total filmgasm.
So maybe length really isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s how you use that time to tell the story. Miller, for her part, tries to cram too much of her precious story into each little featurette, which makes it seem forced. And there are times when the writing is painfully self-satisfied and self-aware.1 A screenplay (especially voice-over narrative) should not call attention to itself in a way that makes the story seem only secondary. And it probably shouldn’t be supremely literary either. Some of the best lines of all time are from the most over-the-top films like Dune, Once Upon A Time In The West and Blade Runner. Most if not all of the lines in Dune would be laughable if they weren’t frigging great. But they are great. With the music playing, David Bowie lyrics blow Billy Collins away. Turn off the music, and Eliot moves out in front. The only person who can get away with building a movie around purely self-absorbed cleverness is Woody Allen, and even then, not everyone agrees (talk about your Consenting Adults). Perhaps the best explanation comes from an email a friend sent me on the subject of using pictures to illustrate a text.
“So you can do that. Do it! Did I say you shouldn't? But in contemporary art (many paintings use words, or fragments: Basquiat, Twombly are two names that come to mind immediately) the words are used almost as brush strokes (same with Edo art, to a degree) in that they're integrated into a larger whole. I _don't think it works to have a painting or drawing which somehow illustrates what the words do — as if the words were the whole and the painting were a part. This makes the painting (or whatever) into words, and that somehow seems to be going in the wrong direction.”
That said, Personal Velocity is worth seeing and not just because of my review of it. The stories are cliché and contrived, but they’re good cliché and contrived. And in spite of what some unforgiving critics are saying, Miller is actually not a horrible directrix. She’s innovative and has a delicate, misty touch. In fact, I would actually like to see her quit writing and pursue only films. And then I would like to date her.2
1 Listen you...
2 ‘Is this not what you wanted?’
Use of Narrator
A quick scan of my favorite one-hundred fifty films reveals about three films that use a conventional narrator. The Gods Must Be Crazy, Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange. Band of Outsiders and Contempt have narration, but those are Godard films. The Lady From Shanghai would have been in my top hundred-fifty if they had listened to Orson Welles and dropped the narrative. Blade Runnerhad a narrative, which was thankfully eliminated in the director's cut.
One possible antidote-or at least hopeful tendency worth watching-may be found in the recent spate of motion pictures by writers-turned-filmmakers: ambitious, chewy, challenging pictures like John Sayles's City of Hope, David Mamet's Homicide and Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper. These films, whatever their defects, are blessed with more nuanced dialogue, social observation and psychological shadings than most. All of the above-mentioned auteurs developed their writing craft in forms other than or alongside screenwriting. Mr. Sayles is a prominent, prize-winning fiction writer; Mr. Mamet is probably our best contemporary American playwright; Mr. Schrader has two solid books of film theory and criticism to his credit. The diverse literary backgrounds of these filmmakers contribute, I would argue, to certain special assets-and problems-in their work.
— Philip Lopate
The following blurb and meta-quote was on moviefone.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film interweaves the stories of three women in different eras. In 1923, the author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), depressed and suicidal, is writing the novel 'Mrs. Dalloway.' In 1949, pregnant Los Angeles housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is plann...
"...[a] handsome, unsubtle, hell-bent-for-Oscar production..." (Entertainment Weekly)
"Fine performances..." (Variety)
"...like, well, a good book." (E! Online)
"...eloquent, somber..." (NY Times)
I will not watch The Hours I won't.
I will not watch it on a boat.
I will not watch it on a tram.
I will not watch it in a van.
I will not watch it when I'm cold.
I will not watch it when I'm old.
I'm sick of films on books I am.
The Difference Between Me and Rebecca Miller
Rebecca Miller would write something like “Her anxiety was like a nipple, barely concealed.” I might write “She kept her problem to herself. Like a nipple, you know it was in there, but you couldn’t touch it.”