5.08.2008

Vignettes and Iron Man

I'm back at the school full-time, so my apologies for not checking in. Wednesdays will be a bit of a bear for the foreseeable future, with a full day of classes and office hours and an evening rhetoric course.

The term vignette* takes its origin from the French term vigne, which means "vine" and refers to the use of vines as decorative borders in early literary works. Over long usage, it's also come to refer to:
  • a short, usually descriptive literary sketch;
  • a short scene or incident, usually from a movie.

The focus is on brevity in storytelling, regardless of the medium. I remember the cultural reaction to Pulp Fiction when it first scorched through American theaters in 1994. For many in my generation, it was our first exposure to non-linear storytelling on the silver screen. It left a huge impression on me, and I think of it as one of the better films of that decade. Its genius rests in its dialogue, to be sure, but the clever pacing and overlapping narratives split and converge in a way that really impacts the story positively. I mean, you find yourself rooting for gangsters in some scenes, and that's because of the exposition Tarantino provides early on in developing Jules and Vincent.

Tangent: In the great pantheon of cinematic deaths that are incongruous with the characters that suffer them, Vincent Vega's unceremonious demise after a trip to the bathroom is up at the top. Vega's cool. That's all there is to it. He's perceptive. He's curious. But mostly, he's just cool. And to die like that? Well, there's no dignity in it...

Ok, so from there we have Tarantino's average Four Rooms. We get 11:14, and dozens of others that employ this style up until we get the staggeringly good Crash. This film won me over on every level. I still don't think it gets its critical due...

Yarning through vignettes is effective because a storyteller can cover a lot of ground. It's a fine compositional tactic. Stephen King's Duma Key was really an excellent story. I liked it an awful lot, despite its slightly flawed third act. I think its cinematic "feel" is, in large part, a product of King's tactic of designing long(ish) chapters comprised of vignettes. He used lower-case Roman numerals to divide the scenes and included a dozen or more in his chapters. It kept the writing lively and the pacing fluid. Richard Matheson's Hell House does this to even greater effect, creating tension and intrigue in what could have been an otherwise pedestrian set-up (paranormal investigators enter a haunted house).

The chapters are dated, the opening vignettes marked by a time stamp. This adds a sense of urgency to the narrative. In five vignettes, spaced out over seventeen pages in the opening chapter, we get the details we need: eight people died or killed themselves in two separate investigations of Maine's infamous Belasco house. Our protagonist is offered a healthy sum to investigate the spirit activity. It will a) provide him the chance to prove his life's scholarly work and b) set him up financially through his golden years.

It's the proverbial "one last score" that has been bandied about in so many noirish crime films. That said, Matheson's artistry with language and his organization make this one an irresistible read.

My advice is to think about this early. When you're sketching out that project, give it some consideration. How do you want your work to flow? How many characters deserve a share of the spotlight? How will these stories converge?

In terms of movies, it's the quiet before the storm (Indiana Jones and Chronicles of Narnia). But in terms of superhero movies, you can't beat Ironman. Yeah, I side with all of the critics (sorry, I have nothing bad to say about it).

But if you need to get out to the movie house this weekend, I think The Fall looks interesting. It'll all hinge on how much Roadside Attractions shelled out for production on a story synopsis like that, but it sounds pretty neat...

*From the American Heritage Dictionary, 2000

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