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November 4, 2014

Book Notes - Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree "Our Secret Life in the Movies"

Our Secret Life in the Movies

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree each share a story inspired by 39 classic films in their ambitious short fiction collection Our Secret Life in the Movies.

Molly Antopol wrote of the book:

"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."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Our Secret Life in the Movies:


Our Secret Life in the Movies is a collaborative book of short stories inspired by 39 films we love. Each of us wrote one very short story for every film, providing a double take for an album of snapshots. The book also forms a kind of a mix-tape of moments from the last days of the Cold War, when we were coming of age in the 1980s amidst the atmosphere of intercontinental-ballistic mayhem and Reaganomics.

We thought of our book as a concept album and of our collaborative approach to writing as a project band. We were inspired by the Wu-Tang disc Liquid Swords, with its remixing of martial arts movies, and by Yo La Tengo's The Sounds of The Sounds of Science, an instrumental accompaniment to the early silent nature documentaries of Jean Painlevé.

Some other individual tracks from various sources to accompany our book:

"Black Sabbath" – Black Sabbath (1970)

The band name, the album title, and the song riffed on an Italian horror movie. The pose appeared to be satanic, but the creative force of the music had another agenda entirely, which was to drown out the B.S. of sanctioned culture with disruptive transmissions of fuck-it-all noise. Maybe there were good reasons to be paranoid. It wasn't long into your childhood in the 1980s before officialdom began to convince itself that the bands and the novels and the role-playing games and the movies were referring to some actual evil force out there in the world that had to be defeated.

"TV Casualty" – The Misfits (1978)

This song you probably recorded off community radio in the late 1980s, a lonely teenager with access to neon-colored blank cassettes and a Malcolm X t-shirt that you hoped might get you sent home from your suburban school. Looking for attention, maybe you shaved part of your head, picked up a skateboard, and stopped going to soccer practice. It was exciting to hear how The Misfits puréed cheap horror film titles and banal television clips into their songs. Like the early rap musicians, the punks seemed to be hinting that there could be creative reuse made of the detritus and cartoon ideology of the official culture.

"In Dulce Decorum" – The Damned (1987)

The song takes its name from a Wilfred Owen antiwar poem, while the band name seems to reference Visconti's cinematic depiction of wartime decadence in 1940s Germany. The song hit the United States as a protest anthem for The War on Drugs when it was broadcast live during the third season of Miami Vice. The producers had cleverly positioned the song as product placement for post-punk critiques of failed empires. The Damned seemed to be telling the kids to Just Say No – but to something other than what Nancy Reagan had in mind for America's youth.

"Long Division" – Fugazi (1991)

The music of Fugazi, especially the driftier arrangements influenced by guitarist Guy Picciotto, were lowered to mere mortals from the analog heavens of the early 1990s. Controlled rage. Political backbone. Up-front, destylized punk vocalization. Ambient and melodic guitar riffs cut through with meat-grinding chords and choppy arpeggios. Good luck slapping a tidy label onto these genreless shapeshifters. What they invent they also subvert. The traditions they spring from they feel free to brush aside. What they build they are not afraid to destroy. They explode within the minimal, creating a musical language that uses just enough but never more than what is needed. Throw in some fuck-you-record-industry-ness and what you have is a favorite of DIY rock. Hello, warped cassette tapes bought with your mail-order forms from Dischord. Hello, half pipe. Hello, straight-edge kids who stood up for something.

"Devil Town" – Daniel Johnston (1990)

If you have a hometown, you have great expectations. If you have a hometown, then you also have a Devil Town. And once you come to terms with the fact that you live in a Devil Town, you realize that all your friends are vampires. It gets you down. As it turns out, you are also a vampire. And then the song ends. And Daniel Johnston has just summarized, with a cheap mic, haunting voice, and plenty of reverb, every work of literature ever penned.

"Texas 71" – Magnolia Electric Co. (2007)

Sometimes, you find yourself standing in the middle of an American moment among a big heap of metaphors and images, asking of the Great Tropes, "Which ones of these can I not outrun? / Which ones of these can I?" And in that little window you call your life, right before your country eats you for breakfast and adds you to The Great Heap of Anonymity, there's time for a quick musing: "Now I think twice about every bargain / everything I've had and what I've walked out on." Not quite enough time for regret, but enough time to feel a nothingness spreading over you, enough time to think about "The chance I had but the choice instead." The chance, the opening, the path you didn't take. The choice that led you into oblivion among a landscape that is as beautiful as it is desperate and unforgiving and reckless. But, before you disappear, your voice will light up the horizon.

"Deeper into Movies" – Yo La Tengo (1997)

You don't know what the lyrics are to this song, and yet somehow it makes more sense each time you listen. You, too, want to go deeper into movies, and this music takes you there. It's a soundtrack-in-waiting that demands a movie be made to accompany it. It is also the title of a book of film criticism, a collection of the reviews of Pauline Kael. In her book, Kael describes how Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 film The Last Picture Show captures "the necking in cars and movie houses" and "the desolation that follows high school graduation." Maybe you find a similar yearning in the song about how all of us have a secret life in the movies.


Michael McGriff, J.M. Tyree and Our Secret Life in the Movies links:

excerpt from the book

Austin Chronicle review

Fogged Clarity interview with Michael McGriff
Indiewire essay by the authors
Paris Review interview with the authors
Weekend Edition interview with the authors


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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