Michael McGriff & J.M. Tyree have assembled a list of 39 obscure art-house films as the starting point for a collection of brief, jagged improvisations on their respective youths. The result is a double-barreled bildungsroman of gothic, middle-American squalor and ruin
Michael McGriff & J.M. Tyree, Our Secret Life in the Movies, A Strange Object, 2014.
"A beautiful aftershock of the movies." -David Gordon Green
EVERYONE HAS A SECRET LIFE IN THE MOVIES...As featured on NPR's Weekend Edition. A whip-smart fiction debut inspired by classic and cult cinema, Our Secret Life in the Movies lures us into a lush dream world. These linked short stories follow two boys coming of age in the 1980s. Blade Runner and space camp collide with Reaganomics, food stamps, and the end of the Cold War in this haunting coauthored collection.
"Wildly intelligent and deeply felt, OUR SECRET LIFE IN THE MOVIES gives us a fascinating look at American life, shot through an insightful and compassionate lens. After reading it, the world seems bigger. A tremendous book." -Molly Antopol
"Reading OUR SECRET LIFE IN THE MOVIES is like finding a lost frequency on the AM dial. The voices you hear in this book are strange, hypnotic, and intensely American." -Jim Gavin
"OUR SECRET LIFE IN THE MOVIES deftly weaves together the art of film and the art of fiction to create a literary-cinematic adventure that is hauntingly beautiful, dreamily inventive, and thrillingly original." -Maud Casey
"Tyree and McGriff conjure up lonliness, loss, and euphoria with the indelible resonance of an iconic tight shot." -Suzanne Rivecca
"A book of poignant and affecting beauty. Readers are presented with characters who are losing their innocence in lockstep with the changing nation they inhabit, and the end result is a book that provides great insight into both who we are and how we got this way. A remarkable achievement." -Skip Horack
"You don't need to see all, or any, of the movies on their list to love this book. You just need to have a secret life." -Maria Hummel
The process behind this collection is almost as interesting as the stories that resulted. The short version: McGriff and Tyree watched the bulk of the Criterion Collection’s library of films, then worked on short stories inspired by each. Sometimes, the connections are overt; in others, they’re the literary equivalents of a Hitchcock cameo. But it’s fascinating both for the process and for the end result. -Tobias Carroll
There is a moment after a movie as the credits roll, when the feelings, memories, and ideas that the movie inspired have not yet been put into words. With really great films a sensation lingers, an emotional response that is the mark of great storytelling. JM Tyree and Michael McGriff have captured this feeling in a love letter to filmmaking with their wondrous collection of short stories, Our Secret Life in the Movies.
San Francisco film buffs McGriff and Tyree set out to watch all 800 + films in the Criterion Collection in a single year. By any standard the project is ambitious: two or three films a day. In an interview with The Paris Review the authors say they were inspired by the location of their shared apartment: “We were living in that wonderful place near Mission Dolores, a block away from where Alfred Hitchcock created the fictional grave of Carlotta Valdes in Vertigo…” Soon after, they began writing stories. “We started writing these pairs of stories. For each movie that fascinated us, we’d both write one story. A double take on the film.” Our Secret Life in the Movies was born.
The book is structured with two pieces of flash fiction following a single movie title. The stories are fictionalized accounts of the writers’ childhoods, subtle and somber portrayals of boys coming of age in the eighties. “For our ninth birthdays, Dwayne got a ticket to Space Camp and I got a set of fatigues and an Amtrak ticket to visit Ron O’ Farrell, my dad’s Vietnam buddy who ran a hunting service in Wyoming.” None of the stories are given bylines—readers won’t know whether McGriff or Tyree wrote the piece—but identifying clues seep through. Anyone who grew up in the eighties will quickly feel at home with themes like Reganomics, the arms race, and Cold War commentary, but the focus remains on the emotional energy of the time and the way the narrators view the world. “Everyone was frothing at the mouth for Reagan, and I slept comfortably in the arms of his speeches, beating my tin drum and hoping the Communists would stick their toes over the line.”
The stories are arranged chronologically, from youth to adulthood, and as the narrators age the stories become more experimental: a Barthleme-inspired piece composed of almost entirely questions, a father who takes an egg for a wife, a story in which the narrator apologizes for the case of ears he keeps under the bed. In the book’s final story, “Godzilla,” written after The Sacrifice by Andrei Tarkovsky, the narrator says: “I should probably tell you that my son is invisible. Other people can’t see him standing there by my side in the tourist photo from the Twin Towers, and nobody but me heard him speak in the exhibition… I wouldn’t say that he’s an imaginary boy, but it is true that he doesn’t seem to age.” These later stories reflect a more metaphorical view of the world, while remaining true to the wonder and imagination depicted in earlier pieces.
McGriff and Tyree have taken cues from the films to inspire, enhance, and develop their narratives. Very few people know the full Criterion library, and of the thirty-nine referenced in this book, non-movie-buffs will likely recognize only a few: Donnie Darko, Miami Vice, Jesus’ Son, Blade Runner, and a handful of others. But Our Secret Life in the Movies is incredibly approachable. The collection is slim (just over 150 pages, with some of the stories as short as a paragraph) and it does not rely on an intimate knowledge of the films. Still, the films provide the magic of the book. Reading the stories with the movies in mind, the narratives grow; they take on new meaning and depth. It is a true multi-media project, and one that is entirely unique.
Sometimes the connection between the films and the stories isn’t decipherable, but there is a bit of a game in discovering them. In “No Outlet,” a piece written after Morvern Callar, a British film about a woman who places her name on her dead boyfriend’s novel and then pitches it to publishing houses, the first line reads: “In the ninth grade, I was rewarded for plagiarizing a short story with a twist ending and kept on writing.” In, “Crockett & Tubbs” written after Miami Vice, the line “Drug murders on television took place in a neon neverland of speedboats and fast cars…” suggests a loss of innocence taking place in the narrative, but it is also a clear reference to the film. Other connections are less literal. In “Concordat” written after the documentary Burden of Dreams, which takes place in a notoriously difficult South American jungle, boys on a Young Life retreat to the woods in Northern California to do God’s work. And in “The Hill,” the second story inspired by Burden of Dreams, the narrator is in a wild backyard working manual labor for a family friend.
I would encourage readers to look up the movies and take advantage of the incredible value in this project. The quiet presence these films take in the stories conveys the idea that what we read, see, and hear outside of literature contributes to our own memories and storytelling. McGriff and Tyree have fused together two separate histories with a common voice, tone, and inspiration. This little book is a powerhouse of flash fiction, with each story standing alone in its remarkability. That it is so cohesive is extremely impressive. I am reminded of the Edmund Wilson quote: “No two persons ever read the same book.” A piece of storytelling resonates within each of us in a unique way. But perhaps McGriff and Tyree put it best in their introduction when they write: “We are in the movies and the movies are in us.” - Kim Winternheimer
This beautiful, devastating little book is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered, and if you grew up in a small town in the 1980s feeling even remotely marginal, it’s specifically engineered to break your heart.
“Our Secret Life in the Movies” has an extraordinary structure: Co-authors Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree have assembled a list of 39 obscure art-house films as the starting point for a collection of brief, jagged improvisations on their respective youths. The result is a double-barreled bildungsroman of gothic, middle-American squalor and ruin. This sounds, in the abstract, pretentious and forced, but the result is flickeringly poetic. “I was just another latchkey kid with divorced parents,” one of the narrators mourns. “This was Reagan’s America, and I was a few too many dimensions in over my head.”The relation between the vignettes they’ve written and the movies they’ve chosen, which range from classics by Tarkovsky and Kurosawa to oddities by Jens Lien and David Gordon Green, remains mercifully elliptical. Ingeniously, the movie-list concept serves as an organizing principle, but the true topics of the book’s evocative fragments are loneliness, anomie and desolation. As the dreamlike snapshots slip by — riddled with references to Dungeons & Dragons, the Dead Kennedys, methamphetamine, cheap cars, desperate sex, Jesus cults, neo-fascist skinheads, all the bizarre forgotten detritus of those strange times — the prose gradually accumulates a mesmerizing glow. “Before it was a sad place to get laid or get your teeth kicked out,” begins one sequence, “I spent my time at the combo bowling alley-roller rink.”
The authors don’t romanticize their hardscrabble origins, as is so fashionable in certain literary circles. “Chasing a fistful of diet pills with gin” or “eating meatloaf in front of the TV on Fridays, waiting for the right lottery numbers to be drawn” was just what you did, devoid of significance, empty of political meaning. We know from the author note, of course, that both of these men made it out of the blasted purgatoria of their youth and into the sunlight of academic and professional success. (Tyree, as it happens, is the Washington-based associate editor of the New England Review.) But the narratives are haunted by alternate possibilities. In a sense, the book is a memento mori for the parallel existences of those — the suicides, the overdoses, the lives lost to burnout and poverty — that they left behind, that we all left behind. - Michael Lindgren
Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree’s Our Secret Life in the Movies is a book of experimental fiction organized around a selection of films from the Criterion Collection. Each film receives two ambiguously authored passages, which together paint a grim but delicate portrait of 1980s boyhood in working-class America. While billed as a work of fiction, the autobiographical is immediately evident: the nameless narrators grow up, as Tyree and McGriff did, in the hinterlands of Wisconsin and Oregon respectively. The world imagined in these pages is one of lottery tickets and TV dinners, bowling alleys and VFW halls, toxic rivers, and mall parking lots. Early adolescent jobs are tedious and thankless:
Before I could legally work, I got an under-the-table job at the do-it-yourself carwash. I unjammed the machine that ate people’s quarters, kept the soap reservoirs topped off, used Graffiti-Gone on the swastikas, and refilled the Flying Lasso condom dispenser in the bathroom.
Tyree and McGriff’s prose delivers an impressive index of brand names. Cars are not just cars but Pintos, Corvairs, “rusted-out Ford Fiesta[s] with suspect brakes,” ’84 Vanagons and ’85 Jimmys. Cigarettes are Pall Malls and Hedges Light 100s, and everyone smokes them liberally. The authors use these brands to evoke not just a specific decade but a periodized matrix of consumer standards and class anxieties. One narrator, registering the ubiquity of Levi’s denim jackets worn by wealthier peers, removes the Levi’s tag from a pair of jeans and sews it onto a windbreaker in a bid for acceptance.
The book is roughly chronological, and earlier passages are perforated with references to anything a typical child of the American ’80s will recognize and perhaps hold dear, especially boys who existed on the geek spectrum: Carl Sagan, Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, NASA paraphernalia. Though the unattributed sections make it impossible to tell the narrators apart, a shared identity emerges: these are brainy loners with military history and/or outer-space fixations, inquisitive and observant dispositions, scant adult supervision, and a sense of alienation that manifests a fraught combo of wariness and yearning. This passage comes after a friendless narrator watches his brother play with a group of boys through a home-built telescope:
I started setting fires, burning little piles of dead leaves, old newspapers, shreds of pornography discovered in an abandoned trailer. A witch with a bulbous shifting face sometimes drifted in the trees outside my bedroom window at night, just watching me. I would aim my telescope past her and watch the surface of the moon, which looked strangely like the skin of a burn victim. The witch didn’t look sinister, but I got the sense that she was a little bit concerned about the way I was growing up.
The strongest writing in the book fuses boredom and disenchantment with hallucinatory departure. Combined with rapid-fire introductions to a rotating cast of weirdo luminaries and deadbeat paranoiacs, the result is a sort of working-class American mysticism, as though angels and demons dwelt in gas stations and strip malls. Daily life is routine, but dread is pervasive and boogeymen are everywhere. Cold War television commentators stoke fears of nuclear annihilation, and hot on their heels come talk jocks speculating on the local presence of satanic cults. The narrators’ relations range in eccentricity: there are fathers who work seasonally in canneries, mothers who serve variations on meatloaf, stepdads prone to violent Vietnam flashbacks, grandfathers with combat tales from the Pacific theater, white-supremacist evangelical youth ministers, girlfriends who are versed in the Gnostic Gospels, neighbors with profound concerns about secret societies, bosses who wear garlic necklaces to ward off vampires, great aunts who black out their farmhouse windows upon widowment. As the narrators grow into adolescence they dabble in sex, punk music, and mom’s morphine, and end up in places as far-flung as homeless squats and college lecture halls. All the while, they navigate a realm both dreary and preternatural: “I was just another latchkey kid in Reagan’s America,” expresses one narrator after a failed attempt at a wildly metaphysical science project, “with too many dimensions over my head.”
As noted, each of these passages is inspired by a film from the Criterion Collection — the 39 titles include works by Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier, David Gordon Green, and Agnès Varda. The art-film conceit does little to enhance the actual reading experience, unless maybe you’re a dedicated cinephile. (The exercise also comes across a kind of automatic endorsement of one corporate institution, albeit a culturally vital one.) But what the organizational structure lacks in cohesion with the prose it makes up for in theoretical and critical appeal. Structured as it is, with each passage conceived as a response to a film, Our Secret Life in the Movies imagines the viewing experience to be so saturated with memory that there’s hardly any separating it from a foray into subjective history.
“Films do not ‘make’ people feel,” writes media theorist Greg M. Smith. “A better way to think of filmic emotions is that films extend an invitation to feel in particular ways. Individuals can accept or reject the invitation,” and they can (indeed must) accept in a variety of ways. The way one accepts a film’s invitation to feel is — perhaps not wholly, but significantly — conditional upon cultural background, which both circumscribes our range of experiences and predisposes us towards certain themes, aesthetics and filmic conventions. Cinema doesn’t transmit emotions but rather dialogues with our private and singular histories. Films call up memories, and they also shape them, give them a lattice to grow on; viewing and memory, like lattice and vine, are interwoven. Everyone has a secret life in the movies.
Still, the strength of the book is not its implicit film criticism but its evocation of childhood spent as a neglected member of an anonymous class. The narrators and their acquaintances watch enraptured as the world devolves perpetually into fresh chaos, but the world does not watch them back. As the book progresses and the narrators uproot themselves from their communities of origin, erudite cultivation replaces boyish preoccupation, a classed evolution foretold by the centrality to the project of high art. The prose meanwhile becomes increasingly unmoored from the conventions of short fiction, drifting further into opaque but compelling experimentalism — as though it, too, were departing from its home port. The outcome is an anomalous work of literature, every bit as observant as its unnamed narrators. - Meagan Day
There’s an interesting conceit to Our Secret Life in the Movies: Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree wrote this collection of short stories together as they worked their way through the Criterion Collection. The pair viewed each piece together, then they each wrote a piece inspired by the film. These stories are paired in Our Secret Life, without bylines, and listed by the source of their inspiration. “We all have a secret life in the movies,” they say, “in which the pictures seep through our dreams until fantasy and reality become hopelessly blurred. We are in the movies, and the movies are in us.”
What emerges over the course of Our Secret Life is unique and intimate. Because of their proximity, one narrative blends into the next. The duality of side-by-side chapters allows for a kind of cross-pollination that’s different than what an author can accomplish in a single, linear narrative. These are stories in conversation with each other. Not only does the reader connect one plot line to the next and begin to recognize threads of both story and prose style, but McGriff and Tyree want us to see how those two perspectives fit together.
This is not to say that Our Secret Life is easily classified as one type of short story collection. It’s a number of things, all at once. This is microfiction—80 or so tiny pieces that stand alone, yet each story is connected like a linked collection or dual novel-in-stories. It’s also a mashup of images and recurring plot points, but the beauty of Our Secret Life lies in the delicacy of language the authors use when describing details of place and time. In “Supply and Demand,”inspired by Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, the narrator muses:
A snapshot taken before we moved out to the country shows my group of friends from the neighborhood, kids with missing teeth and bad futures: a heroin OD, a runaway, a drug dealer, an alcoholic, a settler in the West Bank. In the eastern section of the city, the stink of burnt pig sometimes wafted over from the Oscar Mayer plant. Bullies dangled kids over the befouled river from the bridge near the train tracks and mocked my orthopedic shoes. We had a green Ford Pinto, a car that news reports told us sometimes blew up in rear-end collisions. My mom worked late teaching Lamaze classes to supplement her welfare checks, so I generally took the city bus home by myself…
The voices in each story are distinctly American, and McGriff and Tyree each capture the essence of a decade. Despite the specificity of minutia, McGriff and Tyree write with intentional vagueness of plot that is a product of their structural choices. If the collection is read like a novel, pieces are intentionally left out. But even though we see these characters in the briefest of moments, the overall effect is a collage of regret for lost youth—the kind of nostalgia and sadness we feel for things having turned out not quite like we hoped.
Several ideas serve as touchstones throughout the fragmented narrative: High schools. Car crashes. Reaganomics. Drugs. Teenagers, specifically young men. Restrictive parenting. Working class families, each who seem to know only a piece of each other’s story, as in “Blatz,”inspired by Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati:
The next guy that moved into the apartment tipped over a candle in his sleep, and the firefighters destroyed two floors of the building with their hoses and axes putting out the fire. The owner would have been thrilled if the whole building burned down: more condos, break the grip of rent control. The super and his brother in the wheelchair and their sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, what about their fates? I wish everybody a boring life in the suburbs with a space-age metal toaster and a two-car garage with an automatic door…
The story about the candle surfaces in another story as a distant detail, a rumor. Many points of connection can be found within the short narratives, and keeping them anonymous means that the reader begins to think of them as two parts of the same whole. McGriff and Tyree weave something cohesive, something unified, from the loose ends of so many different film narratives. Sometimes the link between film and story is immediately clear. In other cases the title of the film simply sets the tone for the story that follows.
As Our Secret Life nears its end, its plot lines become less tangible and more surreal. In “The Man Who Married an Egg,”after Blade Runner, a man finds companionship in a brown egg. “By day she sits on the kitchen table in a stand made from a coat hanger. They listen to classical music on the radio and complain about the lack of twentieth century composers and the DJ’s droning, airy voice.” This is a lighthearted moment in a series of what are mostly heavy stories. But it doesn’t just function as a breather between more serious moments; it serves to highlight the gritty pedestrian nature of the rest of the collection.
It would be an interesting exercise to view each film and then read the story that inspired it, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. Nor is having viewed them all in order for the collection to make sense. Our Secret Life in the Movies is work seeded in another artistic realm, one that has something entirely unique to say, artful in its own right. - Heather Scott Partington
A Conversation About Our Secret Life in the Movies