Winnipeg-based filmmakers Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson ingeniously reimagine Alfred Hitchcock’s psychosexual masterpiece, Vertigo, using clips from dozens of movies and television shows in the mesmerizing pastiche The Green Fog. When Maddin, who has made such previous films as Careful, The Saddest Music in the World, and My Winnipeg, which use early-cinema conventions and look like rediscovered, decayed old works, was commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Festival to make a film for its sixtieth anniversary, Maddin turned to the Johnson brothers, his collaborators on The Forbidden Room and Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, and began poring over movies and TV shows set in the City by the Bay. Along the way they were continually reminded of Vertigo as they recognized locations from the classic thriller about an agoraphobic detective obsessed with a woman who resembles his former love. So the trio decided to re-create Vertigo with found footage, not shot-by-shot like Gus Van Sant did with Psycho but by employing themes, places, pacing, mood, and tension similar to Hitchcock’s, and in about half the time. (The Green Fog runs sixty-three minutes, Vertigo< slightly more than two hours.)
In sections with such titles as “Prologue,” “Weekend at Ernie’s,” and “Catatonia,” Maddin and the Johnsons follow the general story line of Vertigo,, with the Jimmy Stewart role “played” primarily by Rock Hudson from McMillan & Wife, Vincent Price from Confessions of an Opium Eater, and Chuck Norris from Slaughter in San Francisco and An Eye for an Eye. There’s a rooftop chase, a visit to a flower shop, scenes in restaurants and with paintings in museums, and a trip up a tower. Occasionally a green fog threatens ominously. In the vast majority of the clips, the dialogue has been cut out, so the characters are seen in choppy edits looking at each other in offbeat ways, allowing viewers to infer their own Vertigo-esque narrative. Because viewers are likely not to be familiar with many of the scenes from the movies and thus don’t know the relationships between the characters, issues of sexuality, homoeroticism, and even incest arise as Maddin and the Johnsons redefine the male gaze — so prevalent in Hitchcock films — while passing the Bechdel test. Snippets of conversation occasionally come through, usually involving people watching surveillance footage on film or monitors or listening to tape recordings, commenting with inside jokes and references to the making of The Green Fog. “What are we looking for, sir?” Sgt. Enright (John Schuck) asks Commissioner McMillan (Hudson), who responds, “I don’t know, but at this point I’ll take anything.” McMillan also says, “That’s the trouble with that old film,” and later sets fire to filmstrips, leading to a series of disasters of epic proportions. And Michael Douglas as Det. Steve Keller from The Streets of San Francisco watches Michael Douglas as Det. Nick Curran from Basic Instinct get out of bed and walk to the bathroom naked. “Boy, you look good, Mike. You ever thought about going into showbiz?” Keller says to Lt. Stone (Malden).
Many shots echo the doubling mirror image that is at the heart of Vertigo. In a scene from Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad, Gobby Broome (Mel Ferrer) watches what appears to be twin girls looking intently at two paintings in a museum. In a restaurant, a daughter tells her father, “I’m trying to become somebody,” as if there’s another persona waiting to burst out of her. And Lt. Stone puts on clown makeup to try to catch a killer. Among the other actors who show up in the film are Mel Brooks, Lee Remick, Martin Landau, Nancy Kwan, Clint Eastwood, Meg Ryan, Richard Gere, Kim Basinger, Donald Sutherland, Miriam Hopkins, Dean Martin, Fritz Weaver, Sandra Bullock, Claude Akins, Sharon Stone, John Saxon, Joan Crawford, Sidney Poitier, Humphrey Bogart, Joseph Cotten, and Veronica Cartwright, from such movies and TV series as Murder She Wrote, Mission: Impossible, Hotel, Bullitt, High Anxiety, Dark Passage, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, The Towering Inferno, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Barbary Coast, The Conversation, Flower Drum Song, The Love Bug, Dirty Harry, A View to a Kill, The Lady from Shanghai, Sans Soleil, Sister Act, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Pal Joey, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Ten Commandments, and They Call Me Mister Tibbs! as well as an *NSYNC video. The intense, titillating score was composed by Jacob Garchik and is performed by the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet. The Green Fog also evokes Christian Marclay’s The Clock and Telephones, in which the Swiss and American visual and sound artist edited together existing film footage to create narratives based on time and phone conversations, respectively. As with those montage-based works, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to identify the actors and the movies in The Green Fog, but don’t forget that the clips are all being employed to come up with something brand new that stands on its own. Maddin (Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Keyhole) and the Johnsons have made a dazzling love letter to Vertigo, to San Francisco, and to the history of movies themselves, offering a treasure trove of fun worthy of repeated viewings.
The Green Fog opens January 5 at IFC Center, screening with Maddin and the Johnson brothers’ 2015 short Lines of the Hand, which is based on Jean Vigo’s unrealized film poem Les lignes de la main and stars film critic Luce Vigo, who is Vigo’s daughter, along with Geraldine Chaplin and Udo Kier. Maddin will participate in a Q&A with SFFILM executive director Noah Cowan following the 8:55 show on January 5 in addition to Q&As after the 4:50 and 8:55 screening on January 6. There will also be some double features pairing The Green Fog with Vertigo.
VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, January 5
Select screenings of The Green Fog will be accompanied by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 mind-altering, fetishistic psychological thriller, Vertigo, which heavily influenced Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson’s San Francisco montage. Based on Boileau-Narcejac’s 1954 novel, D’entre les morts, the film delves deep into the nature of fear and obsession. Jimmy Stewart stars as John “Scottie” Ferguson, a police detective who retires after his acrophobia leads to the death of a fellow cop. An old college classmate, wealthy businessman Gavin Elster (Tom Holmore), asks Scottie to look into his wife’s odd behavior; Elster believes that Madeleine (Kim Novak) is being inhabited by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, her great-grandmother, a woman who committed suicide in her mid-twenties, the same age that Madeleine is now. Scottie follows Madeleine as she goes to Carlotta’s grave, visits a portrait of her in a local museum, and jumps into San Francisco Bay. Scottie rescues her, brings her to his house, and starts falling in love with her. But on a visit to Mission San Juan Bautista, tragedy strikes when Scottie can’t get to the top of the tower because of his vertigo. After a stint in a sanatorium, he wanders the streets of San Francisco where he and Madeleine had fallen in love, as if hoping to see a ghost — and when he indeed finds a woman who reminds him of Madeleine, a young woman named Judy Barton (Novak), he can’t help but try to turn her into his lost love, with tragedy waiting in the wings once again.
Vertigo is a twisted tale of sexual obsession, much of it filmed in San Francisco, making the City by the Bay a character all its own as Scottie travels down Lombard St., takes Madeleine to Muir Woods, stops by Ernie’s, and saves Madeleine under the Golden Gate Bridge. The color scheme is almost shocking, with bright, bold blues, reds, and especially greens dominating scenes. Hitchcock, of course, famously had a thing for blondes, so it’s hard not to think of Stewart as his surrogate when Scottie insists that Judy dye her hair blonde. Color is also central to Scottie’s psychedelic nightmare (designed by artist John Ferren), a Spirographic journey through his mind and down into a grave. Cinematographer Robert Burks’s use of the dolly zoom, in which the camera moves on a dolly in the opposite direction of the zoom, keeps viewers sitting on the edge of their seats, adding to the fierce tension, along with Bernard Herrmann’s frightening score. Despite their age difference, there is pure magic between Stewart, forty-nine, and Novak, twenty-four. (Stewart and Novak next made Bell, Book, and Candle as part of the deal to let Novak work for Paramount while under contract to Columbia.)
The production was fraught with problems: The screenplay went through Maxwell Anderson, Alec Coppel, and finally Samuel A. Taylor; shooting was delayed by Hitchcock’s health and vacations taken by Stewart and Novak; a pregnant Vera Miles was replaced by Novak; Muir Matheson conducted the score in Europe, instead of Herrmann in Hollywood, because of a musicians’ strike; associate producer Herbert Coleman reshot one scene using the wrong lens; Hitchcock had to have a bell tower built atop Mission San Juan Bautista after a fire destroyed its steeple; and the studio fought for a lame alternate ending (which was filmed). Perhaps all those difficulties, in the end, helped make Vertigo the classic it is today, gaining in stature over the decades, from mixed reviews when it opened to a controversial restoration in 1996 to being named the best film of all time in Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll to a recent digital restoration.