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'Our Secret Life': Watching The Quirky Criterion Classics


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and it's virtually seeping from every page of the new collection of short stories called "Our Secret Life in the Movies." These are coming-of-age stories inspired by a year of watching film classics and cult favorites. This writing experiment was conducted by two movie buffs who are old friends as well as accomplished writers.

J.M. TYREE: I'm J.M. Tyree. I'm an associate editor at a literary journal called "New England Review." And my favorite movie - I'm not sure of all time, but right now - is "The Blob."

MARTIN: I've never heard of "The Blob"


TYREE: Well, it's about a blob. It takes over a town. It starts small and it gets bigger. And that's basically all you need to know.


MARTIN: OK. Michael.

MICHAEL MCGRIFF: My name's Michael McGriff. I live here in Austin, Texas. And I'm a visiting writer at the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. And my favorite movie is "Fanny and Alexander" by Ingmar Bergman, the television release.

MARTIN: Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree grew up in the 1980s. Reaganomics, the arms race, life before cell phones. They didn't set out to write about that world but found themselves penning twin narratives as the last children of the Cold War.

TYREE: It all started in the film noir fog of San Francisco. We had this wonderful apartment that was a couple of blocks away from the Mission Dolores.

TYREE: And the Mission Dolores, of course, as film buffs already know, is a fictional burial ground of Carlotta Valdes in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." So it's the original vortex and source for all movies, I think.

And we just started watching movies. And we decided we were going to try to watch the entirety of the criterion collection in a single year.

MARTIN: So you decided to watch all these movies but how did you decide to then watch them, figure out what inspired you, and then each of you write a short story based on your own life?

MCGRIFF: I had a few years prior seen this wonderful documentary by William Greaves called "Symbiopsychic Taxoplasm."

MARTIN: It's a documentary about a documentary about a documentary about a fake feature film. And one of the things he does is he has these split screens, so you get these multiple narratives happening at the same time. And we were saying to each other, how on earth could you possibly do this in a book? And so we thought, well, what if we just keep watching all these movies? And for each one, we did a sort of split screen or double take and we'd each write a short story based on the movie we just watched.

MARTIN: Did you put a time limit on it? You wanted to write in real time? Did you watch a movie and then immediately go to separate rooms and write your short story? Or did you give it a few days to marinate?

TYREE: Kind of a mess. One of us would rates write, like, a sketch. And you know, if the other one was really blown away by it and loved it, they would try to write something that was complementary to it. And that was tough.

MCGRIFF: And another thing that happened was as we were writing the book, what we saw developing were these sort of twin narratives of you know, we were both born in the mid-seventies, both grew up working class and had the same images seared into our minds of the revolutions of 1989 and Reagan and MX missiles and the Rubik's Cube and American gladiators and everything else. And as we kept writing thematically, we just had this accidental parallel. And I think that once that caught fire, we just kept pouring gas on it.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about the stories that you wrote after watching "Donnie Darko." "Donnie Darko" is the 2001 film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Can one of you just give a synopsis of the film for those who haven't seen it?

TYREE: A wonderful film that features, oh, boy, Patrick Swayze, a giant bunny rabbit that falls from the sky or something, circular time, grad school, and very weird happenings in a sort of ordinary high school setting.

MARTIN: It's this dark film that really has this very strong cult following. When you watched it, what did you take away? What did that film trigger for each of you?

TYREE: There's a wonderful sequence in that film that - I think it's a panning shot. You see some high school lockers, ordinary life on an everyday, you know, afternoon in an American high school. And you have Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" playing over it. And it's just raises the hair on the back of your neck. And to me, that's the '80s.


TEARS FOR FEARS: (Singing) I wanted to be here with you alone.

MCGRIFF: The thing I loved about "Donnie Darko" was this idea that there are parallel lives, parallel universes, going on all around us that have equal impact as the world we can see, know, and feel. And as I was writing, I was thinking what might that be for me.

The characters in the story, they have these moments of fantasy and then reality comes crashing down.

MARTIN: Do you two watch movies differently now after doing this project? Can you just casually watch a film, or do you get the urge to squirrel off into a room and write?

TYREE: I'm still writing the book in some sense. I definitely have continued on just any odd things that pop into your mind when you're watching a film. It's very strange to see your own dreams and memories reflected in somebody else's film up on the screen. I only mean that as a metaphor but that's I think that's the thing that movies can do is just reach directly into the collective consciousness and bring you back to a specific place and time.

MARTIN: J.M. Tyree and Michael McGriff. Their new book of short stories is called "Our Secret Life in the Movies." They spoke with us from member station KUT in Austin. Hey, you two, thank you so much for talking with us.

MCGRIFF: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure.

TYREE: Big pleasure, Rachel. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.