Our Secret Life in the Movies – by Michael McGriff and JM Tyree

OSLITM_finalSan Francisco film buffs Michael McGriff and JM Tyree set out to watch all 800 + films in the Criterion Collection in a single year. After each film, the writers penned a short story loosely inspired by the movie, which became Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection produced by Austin publisher A Strange Object. We were so taken with the work, and are such big fans of A Strange Object, we approached them about republishing some of the book’s sketches. Here, we give you the stories inspired by filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, a wonderful look at the stunning prose and unique structure of this highly original and beautifully written collection.


\ After Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky \

I thought I had woken up. Going out into the hall, I noticed that the front door was open. This was unnerving because I was living alone again after the divorce. The last time I had used the door was early the previous evening when I came home from work. Then I heard someone in the house, fussing around in the kitchen.

It was you in your running clothes. You looked hale and flushed, your breath heaving a little, like it did when you first started jogging. I had made fun of you then, thinking it wouldn’t last, but it was actually one of those minor changes, like listening to new music or suddenly acquiring a hobby like knitting, that heralds a breakup. What was strange about this situation was that the breakup had already occurred, we had agreed not to call or see each other, the old phrases like “space” and “needs” had been dealt and played, and you had no reason to return to our house. You didn’t even have keys anymore.

“Hello,” you said, more nonchalantly than was comfortable.

“What on earth are you doing here?” I said.

“How do you mean?” you said, looking hurt in that way that always annoyed me so much. You gestured to the walls around you in the kitchen as if you were indicating ownership, or at least familiarity.

Then I had my big idea:

“You’re not you,” I said.

“What?” you said, using your don’t be foolish face that came out during social occasions.

“I just realized,” I said. “You’re not you.”

“I don’t understand,” you said.

“What I mean,” I said, “is maybe you’re not who you think you are.”

I was trying to give you a hint or clue to the situation we had found ourselves in.

“But I wonder,” I added, “if you are also having this same dream right now.”

“Oh,” you said. “I see what you mean.”


\ After Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky \

My first real girlfriend used to pick me up from my shift at the cannery and drive us to the lighthouse overlook on the Old Coast Highway before she took us back to my apartment. She was convinced she could read my thoughts. I loved riding in her Corvair. Its rear engine and orange factory paint.

I always suspected she was a pathological liar and a hustler.

But there was something so tender about her oddities, the way she moved in with me the same afternoon I met her in the mini-mart at the Cheap-O gas station, the way she had hot-glued green plastic army soldiers across her dashboard, the inside of the windshield, and upside down from the bare metal roof. When reading my thoughts, she would say, “Your mind is like a watercress.” The truth is, I liked the way she talked about my past lives, the way we sat with our backs to the dead town I’d grown up in, facing the salty black ink of the Pacific. She entered the rooms of my mind and described in detail how warm or cool they were, how they smelled, how the floors creaked as they settled into the night, how I looked sitting at the desk in the very last and smallest room, how she touched the scar on the back of my head and said she could tell I was thinking about how beautiful she looked. I was happy to give her all I had.


\ After Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky \

During the same week my older brother, Scotty, became a born-again Christian and started lecturing us at dinner about getting saved and avoiding eternal damnation, my foster brother, Peter, became a devotee of Ancient Astronaut Theory. Moses was a prophet, Moses was an alien, and the Ark of the Covenant was an ancient alien weapon—that sort of thing.

For Christmas that year Scotty gave each of us a wooden cross that he’d carved from cedar and threaded with long leather string. They were too big to be necklaces, but we all wore them that day, on the outside of our clothes—even Peter. Scotty opened our traditional Christmas dinner at the Spaghetti House with a retelling of the trials of Mary and Joseph, then led us in a prayer that required us to hold hands.

In secret, Peter gave me a mail-order pewter button of a Mayan figure with a serpent’s head, whose shape resembled a delta-wing jet and proved the existence of advanced ancient technology. “A guy in Baltimore built one of these, but fifty times bigger, and it flew perfectly,” he had said.

Scotty threatened to disown my parents and punched Peter, hard, in the face, one night when we were all playing along with Jeopardy. Blood got everywhere. During a commercial break, Peter had shown me a book he checked out from the public library arguing that Sacagawea, Joan of Arc, and Jesus were benevolent, shape-shifting extraterrestrials determined to save us all from ourselves. That winter, Scotty’s girlfriend’s father—a county commissioner—fired my father from his janitorial job at the county courthouse.

Each spring, for the next twenty years, my father will use a toothbrush and a bucket of bleach to scour all the moss and black mold from the stone figures in the statue garden at city hall. Lewis and Clark, frozen in place, one holding a map and squinting into the horizon, the other looking through a spyglass at the fire in the sky.


\After Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky \

It could happen: a drinking glass slides across a table by itself when no one else is watching. The first assumption would be mind control, but maybe ordinary objects themselves contain magic, or else they’re haunted. I’ve seen the same thing happen with this box of pens, typical red office pens I found in my grandfather’s desk after his death. Sometimes the box contains six pens, sometimes seven—one of the pens inhabits a parallel universe. For some reason, nobody can own this particular pen. I tried lending it out to several friends but it always returns to its box within a day or two. Another of the pens writes in invisible ink, only revealing its script when tea is spilled on the paper. One pen writes only lies, still another leaks blood, and yet another somehow bends my hand to compose sentimental letters asking for acceptance and forgiveness from old lovers and lost friends. (The ink for this pen appears inexhaustible.) There’s a pen I’m afraid to use or even talk about after what I saw it produce. And then this one last pen, perfectly normal, another bit of mass-produced plastic, tinted like an artificially colored cherry, with the letters “MAPC” stamped on the side, just like all the rest. It’s the pen I love the most, even though it doesn’t do anything extraordinary.


\ After Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky \

Forgive this slight digression. In the Soviet Union, in the year I was born, 7,500 meters of film translated into one feature-length movie if you used three takes or fewer per scene, on about 600,000 rubles, resulting in seventy-three copies of a picture that screened almost nowhere in Moscow. The filmmaker had to steal from everyone—his father’s poems, his actors’ souls, pictures from Brueghel, the coffers of the state, even a poster of one of his own early films. He planned to use a hidden camera on his own mother, and then to put this footage of her into his film. Nearly forty years later, the film has outlived its filmmaker and outlasted the nation that paid for it to be made.

Do you see my point? I am trying to explain why I am uniquely qualified for this position. Yet another empire is crumbling outside this cinema. Onscreen and off, China’s being blamed in some way, for everything, again. Do you get what I’m driving at? It’s unsettling to discover images from your own dreams in someone else’s movie. Does your health benefits package include inpatient coverage for mental problems? I’m only asking out of mild curiosity; this is strictly hypothetical. I’d like to apologize in advance if I sound overly negative, this won’t affect my performance on the job in any fashion you’ll be able to discern immediately.

Personally, I’ve never been all that fond of mirrors—the metaphors associated with them are clichés, and actually I find it unnerving to watch myself aging so blatantly year after year. But this movie contains the history of everything and, I like to think, the seeds of an apology for all imperial thinking, if I might put it that way. Goskino—the official state production company that funded this picture—might have rejected it outright. But somehow it snuck through. It snuck through! My God, think of that!

My wife believes that the female lead in the movie eerily resembles one of my ex-wives, but they are utterly unalike in every way imaginable except for their love of proofreading. After we watch the movie, we talk: what are the things that matter? Acceptance of failure, plus noticing and listening to people and things. I still don’t understand anything, obviously. I know I’m not supposed to ask, but will I get this job? What is it that you’re looking for. . . ?


\ After Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky \

More than my mother waiting in the car while my youngest brother and I crept through the aisles of Safeway to steal a roll of orange “Dollar Off” stickers from the Meat Department. And more than the dense black spark pulsing at the center of my parents’ refusal to go on food stamps. More than the speech therapy I received from our family friend who ran a dog-grooming business from her kitchen and moonlighted as a faith healer. More than the laying on of hands. More than the broken ribs of the moon falling through the trees. More than every tree falling through every night in every wind storm. More than the silent, white fields that I knew existed in other parts of the state, where time ran at the same speed as the gathering snow. The rain. It could fall for years at a time. But more than the rain. More than mudslides and sinkholes. More than the union picketers at the shipyard and more than the scabs. More than amphetamines and drag racing at the old airstrip. And more than bonfires. And more than my best friend whose father burned down their house for the insurance money, with the entire family inside, and more than how he staged their rescue and became, for a time, a hero of our town and the cause for bake sales. And more than fire itself. More than huffing gas-soaked wash- cloths from plastic bags behind the Gas-N-Go. More than everything was how I decided, from an early age, that the parallel universe could be entered at will. But “parallel” doesn’t get it right—more that I could see the inner lives of everything. My father, dragging a piano without casters by a fraying rope through the graveyard shift, my sister slicing through the night on a glittering trapeze. My brothers bound to one another by baling wire as they stumbled toward their mediocrity. My mother juggling handkerchiefs beneath a cone of light, faint blue smoke hovering around her. And me, in every mirror I looked into, every school-bus window, in every black cup of coffee, I could see the God of Childhood, which, from the moment it landed on my head with its light, hollow bones, to that stretch of years where it rode in my shirt pocket each day, its animal heart beating wildly against my chest, to the moment I released it when I turned forty, it pulled me through everything by its rein of starlight. Even with all that passed now, I still carry one of its feathers pressed between the pages of this book, the spine creaking like a great barn door opening out into the dusty sunlight and the rolling fields of all my future days, the long grass bent to the east, asking the wind for forgiveness.


\ After The Sacrifice by Andrei Tarkovsky \

We have been told it is worse in every direction, that it is safest to stay exactly where we are. We have been told it is best to divorce ourselves from the old system and adopt the new system. Handbills fall from the sky with instructions to seal off the windows and doors. The dishes shake in the cupboards. The hills are mute as fish and appear to glow. I can hear vines grow up through the lake and reach for the moon like the hair of the dead.


\ After The Sacrifice by Andrei Tarkovsky \

The summer before the attacks, I took my son to visit the World Trade Center. They had a system where they would take your photo at the lobby, in front of a cardboard backdrop of the Twin Towers, before you went up to the observation deck. You could buy the photo for twenty dollars when you were high on the view. They didn’t glass you in, and I noticed that my son was inclining his head slightly upwards and had his arms spread out like a paper airplane. Birds passed below us, clouds, city, islands, then the sea. My kid started flapping his hands up and down very quickly, and I remembered how I used to do the same thing when I was a child, in dreams where I hovered over houses and lawns. On our next trip to the city we avoided the site, but my son wanted to see the scale model of New York City out in Queens. It was an exhibit in which every building had been meticulously reconstructed in an enormous room. The Twin Towers were still standing, nobody could bear to knock them down, but they had a pink ribbon wrapping the two skyscrapers together.

My son stamped around on the walkway above the model city, miming the crushing and kicking over of buildings with his feet, then opening his mouth and roaring silently like a prehistoric beast.

“I’m Godzilla!” he said. 
“Spare Queens,” I said. 
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, where we stood above the helpless cardboard city. I wouldn’t say that he’s an imaginary boy, but it is true that he doesn’t seem to age. He tells me it’s better to imagine that the world is filled with invisible children.


Michael McGriff’s books include Home Burial, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection; Dismantling the Hills; a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola; and an edition of David Wevill’s essential writing, To Build My Shadow a Fire. He is a former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and his work has been recognized with a Lannan Literary Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

JM Tyree is the author of BFI Film Classics: Salesman, and the coauthor, with Ben Walters, of BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski, from the British Film Institute. His writing on cinema has been published in Sight & Sound, The Believer, and Film Quarterly. A former Truman Capote–Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University, he currently works as an associate editor of New England Review.


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