Fade in on the Mission Dolores, the fictional gravesite of Carlotta Valdes in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo
One block away, two writers with their first jobs teaching creative writing (okay, it was us!) decide to collaborate on a book of short stories that respond to classic and cult movies. We try — and fail — to watch every film in The Criterion Collection over the course of a single year. What begins as the kind of writing exercise we might assign to our students — write something connected with an unforgettable moment in a film you love — first becomes a bundle of pages, then a manuscript. The process is addictive, dislodging stories and what ifs. Working together on this project breaks the loneliness that cannot be avoided in the artistic process. The movies themselves become our muses, speaking through us as much as we speak through them.
We love the way that images, dreams, stories, and cultural history weave together when we go to the movies. Everyone has a secret life in the movies. We turned our personal moviegoing experiences into a book centering on our lives as the last children of the Cold War, growing up in the petri dish of the 1980s amidst Reaganomics and intercontinental ballistic mayhem. Our Secret Life in the Movies exists somewhere between memory and metafiction, between mixtape and mashup.
While we were writing our stories, we kept turning to the kind of books that are created in response to other works of art, from painting and theater to photography and cinema. The myth of originality is that creativity comes from making something totally new in utter isolation, but any writer will tell you that invention and pure newness often arise from remixing and reimagining other works of art. James Joyce's Ulysses teases The Odyssey; Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway riffs off Ulysses; and Michael Cunningham's The Hours reconceives Woolf.
As writers and readers, we find ourselves returning to the murky realm of literature that swallows its own tail (and tales). Some of the extreme examples from our bookshelves are the "cut up" version of The Great Gatsby done by William S. Burroughs in The Adding Machine, the punk-rock rewriting projects and "covers" of classic works done by Kathy Acker. In the golden era of try-anything weirdness that we love best, the late 1960s and early 1970s, Richard Brautigan published a novel about a photograph of a statue (at least that's how Trout Fishing in America coyly begins) and Donald Barthelme fashioned fiction to accompany strange collages, like the octopus and the Mona Lisa in his short story "Natural History." Surely that leaky, half-completed cathedral of profanities known as the Internet — the one we all work on and attend daily and complain about — should mark a revival era of similarly strange projects and visions, where images and texts collide in dark niches and strange little side chapels consecrated to the mixed metaphor and the jumbled juxtaposition.
When it comes to books born from books and from art, we tend to think of the mini-genre of historical fiction about the what ifs and what might have beens in the lives of great artists, as in Joyce Carol Oates's phantasmagoric novel about Marilyn Monroe, Blonde. But there are compelling books that take a much more unusual and personal approach to ekphrasis, the fancy term for art that comes out of other art. W. G. Sebald made a life's work out of assembling narratives to mix and match with found images of postcards and junkshop snapshots, and in his book Unrecounted he wrote a series of poems to accompany photographs of people's (and one dog's) eyes. And Mark Doty's equally remarkable contemporary gem, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, begins with a 17th-century painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem and expands from there into a poignant meditation on objects and intimacy, unreliable memory as autobiography, and the purpose of art.
Regarding film, one of the most intriguing cases on record is Arthur C. Clarke's novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was actually written separately from the film production, out of Clarke's personal attempt to understand what he and Stanley Kubrick had created in their coauthored screenplay. This wasn't a standard novelization but rather a novel as a sort of reverse adaptation of a film. Clarke suggested that Kubrick also collaborated on the 2001 novel, although according to Kubrick scholar Randy Rasmussen, the book and the film differ on key points, such as how much an astronaut would really enjoy space travel.
Another subgenre we delight in involves books that respond not to real works of art but to fictional ones. When Jorge Luis Borges wrote his fictional review of a made-up author in "A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain," he could not have known that José Saramago would incorporate Quain's nonexistent novel The God of the Labyrinth into his book The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Nabokov's Pale Fire takes the form of a commentary on a poem invented by one of the characters, while Stanislaw Lem's A Perfect Vacuum takes the form of reviews of imaginary books. Gilbert Sorrentino wrote 50 reviews of art installations (which he totally invented) in his collection of short stories Lunar Follies, satirizing gallery culture, deflating the rhetoric of art criticism, and warning us all about the dangers of mixing art with the marketplace.
What all of this amounts to, in our way of seeing things, is the idea of fun in experimental fiction. Fun as subversion. Play as the platform for invention. The earnest, the absurd, and the wryly defiant in the same laboratory. The high and the low appeal to us a lot more than the middlebrow, which might help explain why we wrote a work of fiction inspired in equal measure by the camp horror movie Carnival of Souls and The Beastie Boys' video for "Intergalactic," as well as by the innovative films of great living directors like Agnes Varda, Lynne Ramsay, and Lars von Trier. Many of our own most cherished touchstones belong to a kind of secret countertradition of writing that, at its best, is capable of poignancy and even durability without worrying about its status as "Great Art." Here's to the seriously unserious.