By Marc Winters, whose work has appeared in iD, The Offing, Caucus, and Filmrag.
I met Mark at the famous big bookstore in downtown Portland, OR. He’s worked there for over a decade, doing almost everything as far as I can tell: shelving books, selling them, hosting author events, reading stories to kids, changing the letters on the storefront marquee, and more. A striking Englishman over six feet tall, he is well known there, and he stopped to joke with several work colleagues and customers as we made our way to the coffee shop for our chat.
Tell us about Fictional Film Club.
Fictional Film Club is a collection of reviews of movies that don’t exist. But it is also a novel. If you read the reviews and commentary in order, you’ll see a story.
So how did the book come into being?
I started a blog many years ago that was called Fictional Film Club. I would make up films and review them. It started as a bit of wish-fulfillment, inventing films I wanted to see, but then it became a place to experiment, a kind of writing prompt. I realized I could write a short story, and just give it a name, a director, and a release date, and it was a film. Or I’d write an account of a dream, or an overheard interaction, and as long as it was presented as a piece of art that had been made at any time, it fit the format. There’s a book by Gilbert Adair, called Flickers, that came out in the mid-90s to celebrate 100 years of cinema. He chose one film a year, and wrote about it. When I first got the book, I’d barely heard of any of the films, even though I now know that most of them are classics of one sort or another. And that feeling of someone describing a film to you that you don’t know, it’s almost as if they’re making it up. I enjoyed that. I still do. When someone asks you if you’ve seen a film, and you haven’t, and they half-describe it, and tell you who the actors are, and it seems impossible that you haven’t heard of it, so you rush to write it down, because it might be one of the films that are the great ones that you haven’t seen yet, that come to be in your personal top ten, if you keep something like that.
Where did you get the idea of reviewing films that don’t exist? It makes me think of Borges, for one.
Borges absolutely was in there. The idea is definitely not original. Dorothy Parker and her cohorts would play a game called Preposterous Pictures, where they’d make up ridiculous films starring the popular actors of the day to amuse each other. I remember reading about the performance artist Sophie Takeshi, who would give lectures on plays, films, and historical figures that weren’t real.
Yes. Then there’s Brian Eno’s soundtracks for films that don’t exist.
Yes, and everyone’s done that at this point. But you can keep going. Stanislav Lem’s book A Perfect Vacuum is a series of reviews of fake books. A friend bought it for me years ago when I told them about Fictional Film Club, but I promised myself I wouldn’t read it until I’d finished the book.
You didn’t want to be influenced?
I suppose so. But I also realized at a certain point that the idea itself, reviewing things that don’t exist, is just a starting point. The more I went into my own references and my own life, my own web of obsessions, the more Fictional Film Club would not be like anyone else’s book.
Do you have a favorite? Or one in particular that you wish was real?
I suppose some of the more fantastical ones, like YOURFILM, in which the audience’s thoughts can change the action on screen, would be fun. But ultimately, as discussed in the review, that technology wouldn’t necessarily end well.
Some of the films, like YOURFILM, couldn’t exist. But some sound very plausible.
I say in the introduction: If any of these films are real ones, I apologize. I have no way of knowing. I mean, they all have to be plausible up to a point to be convincing. Some of them would probably be quite banal if they were real. But hopefully writing about them isn’t.
The book starts with a premise – reviews of films that don’t exist – and ends up somewhere quite different by the end of it. What was that process like?
Well, as I started to gather some of my favorite films, I wanted to make them part of something larger. In a way, I think I was trying to sabotage the premise. Making something too neat. I mean, a collection of film reviews that don’t exist would potentially be compelling, but I realised at a certain point: where does it end? Making them somehow connected, even loosely, gives it something else.
I was reminded of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. In that the narrator is performing an act of criticism, and initially the fact that he misses the point is amusing. But as we read on, the critic character becomes more ominous.
Definitely. That was a big influence. That structure, of having a novel that is essentially in the margins of a beautiful poem, and with the pompous narrator, who is unreliable and even dangerous, was important to me. Another book I love is Edwin Mullhouse by Steven Millhauser. It’s basically Pale Fire, but with children in the American suburbs of the fifties. He is a big Nabakov fan, if I’m not mistaken.
The reviewer is you, though, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. He is called Mark Savage, and a lot of his biographical information is like mine. But it wouldn’t be correct to make a book about things that weren’t real if there wasn’t some fabrication of the narrator too.
How is he different to you?
Well, he’s less self-aware than me, I’d hope. He gets caught up in a web of fantasies. But then I did too. The book is full of quotes by, and references to, real people and made-up people. There have been many times when I’ve done an internet search for a filmmaker or film critic in my manuscript because I couldn’t remember if they were real or not.
I never saw the narrator ‘character’ in the original blog. There was a tone, I guess –
…Of a know-it-all?
No, not exactly, although that might be part of it… there was a tone of certainty, that was a little bit academic, a little bit of an enthusiast…
I guess there always was a voice, I suppose, of someone confidently telling you something that is clearly nonsense.
Did you ever try and convince anyone that your reviews were genuine?
Not really. I mean, that kind of prank soon gets old. You can box yourself in easily. I wanted the writing and the ideas to be compelling in and of themselves.
And similarly, the book is more than just a series of reviews. It is a novel.
Yes. That’s why it says on the cover ‘a novel’. Partly it’s a joke, because I think you only often see that on the covers of books that are being pitched a certain way, you know, middlebrow novels that want to be taken seriously; I mean, you never see it on mysteries or science fiction, so it’s kind of a joke. But it also isn’t, because this book is a novel, in that it tells a story.
In a novel way.
If I’ve done it right. I had to write the book twice, really, although there have been many more drafts and versions than two. But it had to work as a series of reviews, so you could read anyone and it would make sense. But also, they have a definite order, and the story being told underneath by the narrator is increasingly is reflected in and influenced by the reviews.
I’m curious about the story being told in the footnotes. At first it seems like an innocent tangent, but it becomes something more sinister.
Yes, and it’s like Pale Fire again. It would have been a great book if Nabokov was just giving us a misreading of a poem. But he turns it into a thriller too. I don’t quite go that far, but when I started putting the book together, I kept finding myself breaking up the reviews by going somewhere else. Maybe I was trying to anchor the false stuff in the real, maybe I was getting distracted. What it does is make it mine. I know that many people could write a book of false film reviews, they have done for all I know, maybe a much better one, but no-one could write this one. Or would, I guess. At a certain point, I realised that these footnotes were more potent if they told a story themselves. If they went somewhere.
Does that mean the personal details are not all true? They read like they are!
Some of them are. Nuneaton is a real place, although I haven’t been there for twenty years, so it may as well be fictional to me now. There’s lots of made up stuff in there. The book is a series of reviews of movies that don’t exist, after all. This is a yarn being spun by an unreliable narrator. The important thing to me was to get the voice of someone who is enjoying telling a story, and is not too worried about how entertaining they are. It’s hard, because the danger is that you bore the reader. So there’s extra crime and intrigue in there compared to my real life, like the ending of Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) or Adjunct Professor (Su Fu, 1999).
But hopefully what comes across is that the fantasy of the films, which are weird and wonderful and exotic and from far away places, are initially more interesting to the narrator than his relatively dull suburban life. But he writes about tiny events around him with as much wonder as the films in the end, and reads things into the tiniest gesture a girl makes, one that wasn’t actually meant for him.
And he completely misses the point a lot of the time.
And then there is a moment when we enter the upside down; when one review in particular seems to actually be telling the story that was, until now, below the line. And the character of Mark is missing the point in quite an awful way…
Yes. The review you’re talking about is actually a thinly-disguised document of an important event in the narrator’s narrative. And hopefully this makes the reader think more about the nature of the reviews. They’re not necessarily just whimsy, they’re full of clues and biographical information.
I don’t want to ruin it for readers, but we’re talking about a particular scene at a party –
Why do this?
Well, I guess I wanted the sub-story to break open into the main text. The subplot of the narrator’s own story becomes the main plot, by actually crossing the boundary between the footnotes at the bottom of the page and the main book. I mean, it might feel like the narrator is becoming less professional and more distracted towards the end of the book, but only if you ignore the fact that this work of quasi-academic seriousness is all plucked from the narrator’s head anyway. So I think this is my way of acknowledging that writing reviews of films that don’t exist is a kind of madness.
Then why do it?
Because any work of art is a kind of madness, really. And so is driving a bus, or working in an office or a shop, when you really think about it.
A lot of the sub-story, which ultimately becomes the main story, are memories the narrator has about living in Nuneaton, England in the mid-1990s. For our largely American, but quite international audience, what can you tell us about Nuneaton? It is a real place.
I’m certain that none of your readers will have been there. Unless they went to school with me. I mean, I don’t want to disparage anywhere, and I was very upset when I had to leave, but in hindsight not living there anymore was one of the best things that could have happened in hindsight.
No. I moved a lot as a kid, and I’d say the same about all the other towns I lived in. Nuneaton’s fine. It has history. The author George Eliot was born there, which gives it some kudos. I realise that to an American audience anything British has a certain charm, but that doesn’t necessarily work on Brits.
[at this point, right on cue, a lady at the next table, a tourist from Ohio, asks Mark where he is from, and the pair exchange small talk about the tourist’s niece, who lives in London. The lady’s husband arrives carrying coffee, and is introduced to Mark.]
(Turning back to me): Having an English accent in America is like having a Get Out of Jail Free Card. I can spout all kinds of nonsense that goes unchallenged. It’s completely unfair. That being said, you should mention early in your interview that I’m English. Also, perhaps in the introduction you should tell the readers that I’m striking to look at, and tall. But also friendly.
Back to Nuneaton. Why talk about it so much?
Well, I think the teenage years are some of the most potent when it comes to discovering all sorts of things. You’re seeing new things every day, hearing new sounds, you’re starting to become aware of new films, for example, and whole worlds of directors, and genres, outside of kids and family films, are opening up to you. That feeling, of someone telling you about a film you’ve never seen, is so strong at that time. All films feel possible, because you’re a sponge. And what you like is very important. It’s a way to represent yourself to others. Also, the lonely, sweaty, fastasist aspect of writing really overlaps with the internal monologues of being a teenager. Thirdly: I suppose for me, it felt very far off the beaten track. Not writing about your youth, everyone’s done that, but writing about my youth, there and then, felt so far away from the content of the exotic films I was writing about. It might sound ridiculous, but I knew it would be my book if that stuff was in there.
Is the girl, L, based on anyone?
Certain details are based on a few real people. But really, L has no character. She has no characteristics that are readily identifiable. The narrator is obsessed with her, but doesn’t really know her. He certainly doesn’t understand her. That’s the point really. It’s about him. It’s about his narcissism. Which might make it a narcissistic book, I don’t know. But there’s a difference, I hope.
Without giving too much away, the narrator comes across at certain points as… less than an upstanding individual…
Yes. Dubious and criminal even. Certainly deluded.
And yet it’s your name on the cover. You don’t create a fictional author like Pale Fire’s Charles Kinbote.
Well I’m clearly more brave than Nabokov. Ha. There have definitely been loved ones who read the book and have been concerned that they didn’t remember my teenage years properly.
What do you say to that?
Well, I didn’t see it coming. I thought the fact that it was called Fictional Film Club would let them know.
You say that…
But, yes, it’s like stage magic. The magician goes on stage, tells you he’s going to trick you, does everything to let you know he’s lying to you, and yet you still watch the show.
Is Fictional Film Club supposed to be funny? I laughed a lot, but there’s also a lot of serious ideas in there.
The two aren’t mutually exclusive. In one sense, it’s frivolous, yes. Especially when it feels like there are more important things going on elsewhere. But no book is going to save the world, definitely not in the time we live in. No book is important enough, or has enough reach. Which might sound like I’m being pessimistic about literature, but I’m not really.
[At this point in the interview, a work colleague approaches Mark to tell him he enjoyed his recent show. We talk about some of Mark’s other pursuits, regular events that he and his wife host at their venue, Le Salon Rouge, Mark’s music, and other interesting projects that straddle various genres]
There actually is a Fictional Film Club, its membership is very small. There are clues in the book about how to become a member. I deliberately didn’t want to make it easy to join, because so much of what we do is aim for as big a reach as possible, I mean, even though I wrote a book that I know couldn’t be a bestseller, I still would love it to be. But the club itself is the opposite, in a way. Something personal, intimate. We have film screenings, and periodically perform the Seance For Unmade Art, which is a celebration of all the ideas that never come to fruition. I also have designed several walking tours of set locations for fictional films shot in Portland.
Films that don’t exist, I presume?
Yes. It’s a tour of locations, just like you might go on in New York or on a bus through Beverly Hills, looking at film star houses, only this one is of places where a non-existent film was shot. Or wasn’t, I guess. It’s a tour of lies, really. If you present anything with authority, it’s convincing. When that spell starts to work on myself, the person spinning the lies, then I’m really interested.
I mean, and this might be veering off on a tangent, you have the same name as a kid I went to school with in Nuneaton. Same spelling. He was American too. I know it wasn’t you, because you’re younger than me. But you’re completely tied to him in my imagination, and it has nothing to do with anything you’ve done. It’s been on my mind ever since you contacted me for this. I saw his email address and thought of him. With the tiniest bit of preparation and research you could quite easily persuade me that you are the Marc Winters that I barely remember from my childhood, if you were so inclined.
Fiction and fact blur together, much like in the book.