Research Notes · 11/07/2014

Our Secret Life In The Movies

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree write about Our Secret Life in the Movies from A Strange Object.

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In 2009 we set out (and failed!) to watch every film in the Criterion Collection’s vast catalog of world cinema over the course of a single year. For our new book, Our Secret Life in the Movies, we selected around 40 films, and each of us wrote a short story in response to every title. Our book provides a double take on classic and cult movies from silent French underwater documentaries to Beastie Boys videos and Donnie Darko. We whittled down a large number of stories into a collection of linked snapshots about characters growing up in the 1980s during the last days of the Cold War. The wider culture of space travel, MX missiles, and Reaganomics finds kids wandering through the surreal realm of massive top-loading VCRs, mix-tapes, the Rubik’s Cube, and TV specials on Nuclear Winter. We removed our names from the stories, loaned each other our ideas and material, and shuffled the order so that no assumptions would be made about who wrote what.

Our Secret Life in the Movies, through a certain lens, was nothing but a research project. Each pair of stories took inspiration in one way or another from a particular film. We tried to write the book so that it would be a good read for someone who didn’t know the films, but who might get an added charge out of the stories if they watched them afterwards. With Kenneth Anger’s short film, Puce Moment, one of us responded to the film’s imagery of women’s dresses, and the other focused on the notion of living a parallel existence. For David Gordon Green’s George Washington, we focused on growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. For the cheap but effective low-budget horror flick Carnival of Souls, we emulated its creepy ability to conjure the surreal and the hallucinatory. At times we responded to films outside The Criterion Collection (Blade Runner, for example), yet we largely stayed with our viewing program, in part because it helped to narrow down the vast (and to us, infinitely entertaining) topic of how “the movies” pervade the dreams of the culture, and of our video-store generation.

All of the stories in our collection are written in first person, and yet this is clearly a work of fiction, in which events and incidents are transformed by the strange What Ifs?, alternative autobiographies, and fantastical flights of fancy that movies make possible. Something we’re both interested in as writers is the slippery realm between fiction and reality. In this regard, our entire project was influenced by looking closely at a single film, William Greaves’ 1968 experimental curio Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, a movie within a movie with multiple points of view, split screens, and several layers of reality. Symbio is about the production of a documentary about a fake feature with the hilarious title Over the Cliff. Greaves set up his actors with a horrendously embarrassing script, pushed his crew to the breaking point by pretending not to know what he was doing, and incorporated his technicians discussing the flaws of his film. Symbio asks: Is anything real, and does it matter? We took this question and tried to run with it in our version of a “novelplasm.”

Another way to look at research is to think about which writers inspire you, which writers you turn to for guidance and permission. In terms of reading, we both gravitate toward what might be termed “experimental” fiction, works that care less about genre and A to B plot structures and more with trying out new weird stuff. A few of the writers and artists we looked to during the writing of this book: Richard Brautigan, Gilbert Sorrentino, Russell Edson, Laurie Anderson, Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and Franz Kafka. One common thread running through these writers’ works is an almost absolute disregard for what a story is supposed to look like. As with Greaves, these writers don’t shy away from laughter and the absurd, a reminder that entertainment, not pretension, is what makes for a good read.

In a book like ours, it’s very freeing to let the research take command. At some point, the book was telling us how it wanted to take shape. The word “research” can have such a cold, academic tone, and it conjures images of dusty tomes and thesis statements. For us, research was simply the act of letting our obsessions, quirky impulses, and an endless stack of great movies take the reins. When all was said and done, we ended up with a collection that underwent a few years of steady revision and numerous complete overhauls. The truth is, we never would have gotten there had we not treated this book like a permeable, shapeshifting blob, a kind of Petri dish where alternate realities bloomed out of the invisible.

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Michael McGriff is an author, editor, and translator. His latest collection of poetry, Home Burial, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, and on PBS NewsHour. He lives and works in Austin, Texas.

A former Truman Capote – Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University, J.M. Tyree currently works as an Associate Editor of New England Review. His writing on cinema has appeared in Sight & Sound, Film Quarterly, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Believer, and the BFI Film Classics series of books from the British Film Institute.