A work of ecstatic cinephilia run gloriously amok, Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog both is and isn’t a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Climaxing at a brisk 63 minutes and composed entirely of scenes from other movies and TV shows shot in San Francisco — 101 titles made the cut, from more than 200 Maddin viewed for inspiration — The Green Fog is an example of director as curator, or perhaps better yet as scavenger, scouring the best and worst of Bay Area televised entertainment for the ghostly, subconscious traces of Hitchcock’s greatest film.
These include noir classics, early rom-coms, vintage creature features and disaster flicks all the way through 2015’s San Andreas, plus the masterworks and mediocrities in between: a couple of Dirty Harry pictures, Fatal Attraction, The Love Bug, two Sister Acts, a Star Trek, Murder She Wrote, Mrs. Doubtfire, Sans Soleil. Even if you recognize the titles, don’t expect to recognize all of their images on screen: Some clips are so brief and obscure they’re almost subliminal. Only one shot from Vertigo itself finds its way into the finished product, and it’s not what you’d expect: It’s an insert shot of a hand grasping a ladder rung.
Yet Maddin has managed to construct a rickety Vertigo redux from other people’s stories. He originally intended for The Green Fog to be a general valentine to San Francisco, but it wasn’t until he went spelunking through the city’s screen memories that he discovered the similarities to its most iconic movie. Thus, his bonkers collage settles into something like a narrative, with montages echoing Vertigo’s plot points: rooftop chases, leisurely traffic pursuits on San Francisco’s uniquely parabolic streets, a stop at a florist shop, visits to art museums and galleries where actors stare hypnotically at portraits, mid-film deaths and burials, a sanatorium sequence, romances blossoming and curdling, vertiginous falls from skyscrapers. Apparently, San Francisco films are lousy with duplicitous blondes.
In its savvy repurposing of archived clips, The Green Fog is almost a singular film. Its closest antecedent is Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema, a project as political as Maddin’s is playful, and as sprawling as Maddin’s is contained: This is the history of one movie, not all movies.
It’s also a city symphony, with landmarks from Alcatraz to the Golden Gate Bridge lending geographic specificity to the montage’s periphery. The score, composed by Jacob Garchik and performed by Kronos Quartet, is rife with tingly, slicing allusions to Bernard Herrmann, quivering notes of noirish suspense, and surprising, and totally welcome, jazz excursions.
The music is vital in generating mood and texture, because speech is scant. One of Maddin’s recurring formalist gags is to feature scenes of spoken dialogue but with all words excised. Instead, Maddin manically jump-cuts around them, leaving in an occasional grunt or vocal tic. It’s as if another director’s context would break the spell, and it probably would; without the words, we can fill in the content ourselves. One of the most brilliant montages captures close-ups of Chuck Norris, from multiple movies, staring dumbfounded in a state of existential catatonia. By stripping out the words, the psychological backstory and even the comfort of recurring characters, Maddin distills Vertigo to a sustained level of pure cinema that Hitchcock himself could never fully realize in the studio system.
Rendering his characters speechless isn’t the only cunning formal manipulation on display. Maddin deploys cheeky picture-in-picture gags, intermittently placing his scenes inside the video booths of surveillance teams listening and watching every gesture — a paranoid nod to The Conversation, the second-best Bay Area movie of all time, as well as a riff on Vertigo’s obsession with voyeurism. Maddin also slows scenes down to a barbiturate speed, rewinds them when necessary and mismatches audio and video for amusing but disorienting effect.
The truth is slippery and subject to revision, and we come to not trust the scenes playing out in front us, this being another central theme in Vertigo. That’s why James Stewart’s Scottie doesn’t need to be in the movie: He is us.
THE GREEN FOG. Director: Guy Maddin; Distributor: Balcony Film; Not rated; Opens Friday, Jan. 11 at Lake Worth Playhouse