At the Mountains of Madness

From the hardboiled classic You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Eric Knight (a Yorkshireman who moved to Hollywood, author of Lassie Come Home). The main speaker is flamboyant filmmaker Quentin Genter, engaged in a drunken evening with the narrator, Dick, and movie star Jira Mayfair:

“You see, I’ll tell you a secret. No one is sane here. No one is sane and nothing is real. And you know what it is?”

“Sure, it’s the climate,” I said, kidding.

“That’s it–exactly,” he said. His eyes were going sort of funny in the middle, and he was shouting in a whisper. He got real excited. “Dick, you know, you’re the only one man besides me in the whole world who’s discovered it. It’s the climate–something in the air. You can bring men from other parts of the world who are sane. And you know what happens? At the very moment they cross those mountains,” he whispered real soft, “they go mad. Instantaneously and automatically, at the very moment they cross those mountains into California, they go insane. Everyone does. They still think they’re sane, but they’re not. Everyone in this blasted state is mad. I’m mad. You’re mad. So is Jira. We’re all perfectly, gloriously mad.”

“You know,” he whispered again, real low, “we see things. Do you see things?”

“Sure,” I kidded. “I’ve never acted right since I’ve been here.”

“That’s it. It’s the climate. Now look, you see those mountains?”

He pointed out to where the hills went up, blue-black against the darkness, and with lights winding round on the roads like fire-pearls.

“Sure,” I said.

“There! That proves it,” he said.

“Proves what?” I asked him.

“Proves you’re mad,” he said.” You see those mountains there just like I do. And you know what?”

I shook my head.

“They’re not there,” he whispered. “You only think they’re there. And they’re not. It’s just a movie set. If you go round the other side of that mountain, you’ll see nothing but two-by-fours that hold up the canvas.

“And you see this restaurant? Well, it isn’t here. It’s a process shot. All Hollywood is a process shot. It’s a background just projected onto ground glass. And the only reason nobody knows that is we’re all mad.”

The novel was written in 1937. At some point, David Lynch was interested in filming it. It’s a slender volume, 134 pages with intro in my edition, but packed with incident. Each chapter could probably fill half an hour the way Lynch paces things, and they’re mostly about four pages long. I like the Mad Hatter reference here, and the whole phildickian fantasy reminds me of the early draft of THE TRUMAN SHOW, in which Truman prepares to go on holiday and the showrunners build fake pyramids a short distance from his hometown.

12 Responses to “At the Mountains of Madness”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    It’s a great L.A. novel — right up there with “The Day of the Locust” (Schlesinger’s film of which is grievously underrated) The other great L.A. movies are Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” Varda’s “Lions Love” and of course Polanski’s “Chinatown”

    Chazelle’s “LaLa Land” isn’t bad, BTW. As for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Sharon Tate’s Underwear Drawer” the less said the better.

  2. Sometime in the next few days we’re probably watching the unappealing Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, just because the trailer was funny and I’m curious about its version of LA.

    Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself is really, really good… it made me realize how much of my dreamspace has been colonised by that city.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I like THE NICE GUYS. It’s LA by way of Big Lebowski but not too bad.

    Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself is for me, the real best movie about Los Angeles. Though of course the Altman, the Polanski and other stuff are great and excellent.

  4. The Andersen includes bits of all the others so it has the edge by sheer force of accumulation, just as Maddin’s The Green Fog (avaoilable to view free now) is one of the ultimate Frisco flicks.

  5. Simon Kane Says:

    Oh I adore “Los Angeles Plays Itself”, and have eschewed calling it LA ever since. I know, I’m so strict. (I also love its takedown of the myth of Chinatown). The city’s a workshop. I love workshops. Also I was rewatching Glen or Glenda last night and am now even more convinced Lynch’s genius lies in exclusively employing the language of bad cinema.

  6. In Blue Velvet he certainly made strong use of the washing line composition so beloved of bad widescreen cinema, where Frank Booth and his gang stand shoulder to shoulder. And Eraserhead seems to owe something to stasis and dead air of the early talkies.

    As an actor, Lynch certainly weaponizes clunkiness.

  7. chris schneider Says:

    … ah, but it’s a fine madness! (He Said, With Elliot Baker Overtones).

    Jacques Deray’s THE OUTSIDE MAN, which I was thinking of the other day, also counts as a good Lis Angeles movie. Includes both LAX and the old Venice Pier.

  8. Another interesting, not quite successful take on LA is “Sunset”. The idea is brilliant: In the 1920s, the real Wyatt Earp (James Garner) is brought to Hollywood to advise on a movie where he’ll be portrayed by Tom Mix (Bruce Willis). Malcolm McDowell is a powerful producer oddly modeled on Chaplin. There’s a murder. Blake Edwards wrote and directed.

    The core idea was that Hollywood was no different than a lawless frontier town, and the heroes — genuine cowboys both — were the right guys to solve the murder. I was disappointed somehow. I kept hoping for some dramatic friction between the real and the fake, either between the two leads or between them and Hollywood.

  9. Yes, that one’s curiously unresolved despite good casting and moments. The main takeaway is that Blake Edwards seemingly hates Chaplin. Which is odd.

  10. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Don’t forget my favorite film maudit, “1941” in which Spielberg reproduced period L.A. entirely on the sound stages of Burbank.
    Losey’s “M” is a great film shot in the Bunker Hill area with a climax in the Bradbury Building, And that brigs us to the ultimate Bradbury Building movie “Blade Runner”

  11. ehrenstein47 Says:

    One more for downtown 500 Days of Summer

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