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Picking Up the Pace: Parker Posey outraces her co-stars in the trilogy 'Personal Velocity.'

Threesome

Rebecca Miller's trilogy film, 'Personal Velocity,' peaks in the middle with Parker Posey's best role yet

By Richard von Busack

IN IMMACULATE low-fi style, the interesting but flawed Personal Velocity is an omnibus of three short stories directed by their author, Rebecca Miller. It's an auspicious debut. Miller shoots with a digital camera, and she's careful with light--the city streets, woods and small towns where her tales take place look appropriately lonely, tough and drab. The trilogy is about women trying to flee, with all three stories taking place within about 150 miles of New York City.

Two of the stories exemplify the current short story: acrid little slices of working-class anguish. I knew a Texas woman who described the Texas way of talking as "clipped." She meant that way of cutting off meaning through the unsaid, through colossal understatement. Years after his death, Raymond Carver (not a Texan) is still the master of that clipped style, and he's still imitated and channeled into dry tales with cynical, boomeranging endings.

The third episode stars the admirable, sorely underrated Fairuza Balk. Yet it seems like the least of the stories. It's about Paula, who negotiates a near-death crisis by running away, and how her fears are overcome by her hopes--this, despite a sharp lesson in not trusting someone unknown. The punch line has that same acrid downturn that every other story in The New Yorker has. In avoiding sentiment (the most feared enemy of the short-story writer today), too many writers run straight into the arms of conventional dourness; they mean to leave you cold.

The first episode stars Kyra Sedgwick as single-mom Delia, who escapes her battering husband with her children. After being forced to crawl for help, she gets her groove back. Sedgwick has that aristocratic look of a working-class woman. It's what you see in some Southerners and coal-country people: the small pointed chins, the firm mouths, the air of almost deranged pride--the same thing you'd see in a British portrait gallery of noblemen and women. As written, Delia's story is an upbeat one. She shows how (as the poor often do) she can change what the authorities call self-destructive behavior. Hers is a triumph of personality.

If I'm not completely bowled over by Delia's tale it's because of Miller's icy short-story precision. The difference between what's organic in film and inorganic on the printed page is as clear as the difference between a trout in a stream and an artfully arrayed platter of sushi.

There's sentimentality coiled up in the heart of this reflexive unsentimentality. You can sense it in the rather perfect, clean way that things fall apart, the way that things are left between the lines and the way the "small good things" are offered up, as in Carver's stories.

The sure, cool narrator's voice sums up all the possibilities; the story's told before we see it. This slight falseness is evident in more than just the contrast between the big luscious ass the narrator tells us Delia has and Sedgwick's trim, movie-actress rump. It's also in the way Sedgwick snarls at a woman at a shelter who was trying to comfort her. We root for Delia because the other woman's not as good-looking as she is.

So, the real reason to see Personal Velocity is the center episode, with Parker Posey. It seems as if Miller knew Greta--the Posey character--best and understood what made her run. And it's Posey's best work ever, which isn't to say that she's performing a character unique to her. She's played women like Greta before, usually for laughs. Never in the past, however, have we seen the conflict, the reluctance or the sorrow of these women.

The most stuntlike acting usually gathers all the praise: some blue-blooded swan of the Broadway stage plays a toothless crack addict, and the critics rave. But some praise must be reserved for actors who, once having pioneered a type, explore it more thoroughly than you could have ever hoped. Maybe the best male performance this year is Michael Caine in The Quiet American, yet it's not a radically different part from what he normally does. Once again, he's a crumbling, soft-spoken Englishman, under the strain of age and dashed hopes.

Posey's Greta has a story that's never presented in the movies sympathetically. She's the Manhattan woman who soft-pedals her own talents to keep up with her nice-guy husband. Finally, against, her will, she prepares to start climbing. Such a woman is often in the movies, yes. They call her a bitch.

My own emotions--that it's better not to climb, better to show loyalty--are quite overcome with the argument Miller makes with her writing and Posey makes with her acting. I was forced to admire Greta, so much so that I felt lost afterward. Some men watching this episode will suddenly be able to sympathize with the woman who, once upon a time, cut them loose for not pulling their weight.


Personal Velocity (R; 86 min.), directed and written by Rebecca Miller, photographed by Ellen Kuras and starring Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Poser and Fairuza Balk, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.


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From the December 12-18, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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