Book review: ‘Our Secret Life in the Movies’

Michael Lindgren in the Washington Post:

719ve5e13SLThis beautiful, devastating little book is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered, and if you grew up in a small town in the 1980s feeling even remotely marginal, it’s specifically engineered to break your heart.

Our Secret Life in the Movies” has an extraordinary structure: Co-authors Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree have assembled a list of 39 obscure art-house films as the starting point for a collection of brief, jagged improvisations on their respective youths. The result is a double-barreled bildungsroman of gothic, middle-American squalor and ruin. This sounds, in the abstract, pretentious and forced, but the result is flickeringly poetic. “I was just another latchkey kid with divorced parents,” one of the narrators mourns. “This was Reagan’s America, and I was a few too many dimensions in over my head.”

The relation between the vignettes they’ve written and the movies they’ve chosen, which range from classics by Tarkovsky and Kurosawa to oddities by Jens Lien and David Gordon Green, remains mercifully elliptical. Ingeniously, the movie-list concept serves as an organizing principle, but the true topics of the book’s evocative fragments are loneliness, anomie and desolation. As the dreamlike snapshots slip by — riddled with references to Dungeons & Dragons, the Dead Kennedys, methamphetamine, cheap cars, desperate sex, Jesus cults, neo-fascist skinheads, all the bizarre forgotten detritus of those strange times — the prose gradually accumulates a mesmerizing glow. “Before it was a sad place to get laid or get your teeth kicked out,” begins one sequence, “I spent my time at the combo bowling alley-roller rink.”

More here.