Book Review: Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and JM Tyree

OSLITM_finalOut of a set of unique constraints, Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree have written a strange and wonderful little book of fiction. Our Secret Life in the Movies does not follow any obvious narrative path, depending instead on a set of prompts to lead the way. The authors, former university classmates, decided to watch the entire Criterion Collection and write stories based on each film. This slim volume of short fiction is the result, a work of experimental writing that offers mainstream readers cinematic references as ballast.

Appropriately, for a book based on the viewing of a thousand-plus hours of cinema, hundreds of non-movie pop culture touchstones, both high- and low-brow, are uncovered. Though the narrators clearly place the setting in the 1980s, Richard Brautigan is evoked in one chapter and paid great tribute throughout the text. Every page contains a narrative non sequitur or a moment of underlinable poetic insight. Wisps of a plotted through-line exist if you squint, but they’re less important to the mood of the book than the brief bursts of impressionistic descriptions. The chapter for Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry begins: “To begin, consider water pouring over the gray marble of the salamander’s eye, hard water whose deposits shimmer in goosenecked sink pipes, water that stains the teeth of widows, water and its mineral shadow floating over the city, crossing the new moon, entering the machine of hours.” 

Each chapter includes two unattributed pieces, and from chapter to chapter it is nearly impossible to distinguish which author wrote which, though repeated geographic references could be seen as hints.

When fiction is based on other works (and announces that connection), it can be as interesting to see how faithfully the author(s) interprets the material as how far the author(s) strays from the original inspiration. For most of these cases in Our Secret Life in the Movies, very far. Here is the shortest story, based on Peter Yates’s The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, which is only a sentence: “Among the several ways I died in my sleep this week, the worst was certainly when an old girlfriend took me to see a musical called Your Inevitable Compliance.”

Reading this and trying to parse the text for connections to Yates’s film is as difficult as it is pointless; I could count on one hand how many stories seemed to directly reference their chapter’s inspiration. (Ten thousand gold coins to the reader who can find direct correlations between the excerpt above and anything in George V. Higgin’s debut novel, which Yates’s movie is based on.)

As a former video store nerd, I’m also as interested in the process as I am in the product, so I wish I knew more about how this book came to be. There is no telling if they watched all Criterion films available at the time of writing, since just thirty-nine movies have their own chapter. I also see at least two films that were never released by Criterion, so it seems the rules were flexible.

Criterion is a near-spotless institution, Michael Bay releases aside. It’s not the worst brand to be associated with, so I imagine a piece of fiction that felt even remotely commercial would not be able to hang with the distributor’s peerless art-house reputation. With that in mind, if I had to pick directors from the Criterion Collection’s roster, I’d say the authors are closest to Hollis Frampton or Stan Brakhage. As in, you won’t be able to describe the plot to anyone, but you’ll remember the feelings it stirred in you long after you’ve tried. If the authors hadn’t revealed their inspiration, this would still be just as haunting.

Publisher: A Strange Object

Pub date: November 4, 2014

Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel