Our Secret Life in the Movies

By Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree


A Strange Object
November 2014

Reviewed by Veronica Popp


Our Secret Life in the Movies is an entrancing look at life behind the camera through the lens of two young boys. Their memories and recollections are the reflections of two young men who grew up within the fractured Reagan era. It is not a book merely about film, but rather a story of the maturation of two young men through movies.

These narratives are smart, sad, and touching. Their topics vary from welfare, credit, and Kmart, to fake obituaries, croaking pack rats, Dungeons and Dragons, disposable stepdads, shitty part time jobs, and fish-smelling jeans. McGriff and Tyree's stories are snapshots of a lost time.

War is one of the threads tying these tales together. There are recollections about fathers, uncles, and grandfathers at war: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The most powerful story is the shortest, titled "Department of Propaganda." After his grandfather's death, the narrator finds a jar full of human teeth hidden inside a trunk, a secret souvenir from his WWII days. Following this story is "Seven Days in Cannes," which takes place after VE Day, aptly titled VD Day within the great uncle's recollections of fathering a child in Europe and doing "anything he wanted." This is a sharp contrast to our narrators' lives. The Cold-War after-effects hide behind the shadows within the implementation of Reaganomics on small towns.

Upward social mobility is a major theme as well within McGriff and Tyree's slim work. In "Self Portrait with a Plantain," our crestfallen narrator hears from his mother, "Capitalism is ascendant, dear." He cannot be paid to read books, unless he is well known. Without a strong sense of identity, one cannot escape lower middle-class status. The world is not the same as film; it moves slower, as this quote from "Pulp Fiction" indicates, "I never got shot, stabbed, blown up, thrown from a train, garroted, poisoned or beaten down." Life is a pointless disorder, at a slower pace.

Within "Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space," true yearning is expressed. When a vacant land sign is the only landmark, our narrator decides it is time to leave home. "It isn't much fun to celebrate your nineteenth birthday in a broken down city, without a job, or any place to sleep in the winter." These men discover they are accidents of time. If they were born in a different era, perhaps time would have been in their favor.

"Questionnaire" continues this examination of restlessness within a stream of leading, dangerous, painful, and ultimately powerful questions on family, worth, and self. It begins with, "Isn't that your mother?" and ends with, "It's illegal." "Stations" reminds readers to let go of lost love: "it wasn't you that left the world, but me." We all have our stations in life and sometimes we must move on. This growing dissatisfaction with the lack of a happy ending morphs into fear. Life outside the home and the movies can be terrifying. Living within film is easier. "Another Dream" chronicles the fast moving pace of life after college: "Life was a practical joke that never ended in any punchline."

The final story, "Godzilla," is a perfect end. The narrator ends with his son exploring the decimated World Trade Center. He proclaims, "I am Godzilla." Godzilla was a metaphor for the Japanese fear of a nuclear attack. This has become culturally re-appropriated through the filmic lens of a young boy. Our Secret Life in the Movies ends leaving readers reminded of a profound sense of hope and new memories; we are all the invisible children, living through nostalgia and culture.

Lost upon this late-eighties child, I found myself Googling references. If you're my age or younger, have your iPhone or Androids at your desks. This book is a perfect read for the early-eighties child who wants to crawl right back into home.