I saw Guy Maddin’s new film one day after learning it existed. I’m a big fan of Guy Maddin, The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg are two of the most fascinating and beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. I was excited when I read that his latest film, The Green Fog, is a recreation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It repurposes clips from dozens of films and television shows that were shot in San Francisco to retell the classic thriller. I’m not as well versed in Hitchcock’s filmography as I’d like to be, but Vertigo is burned into my brain. When I was in college I worked as an A/V assistant for an intro film course. One of the films they showed every year was Vertigo. It was my job to project the film, then later during the lecture play clips of the film, sometimes the same one many times in a row. I know Vertigo pretty intimately, which I think made my experience with The Green Fog all the more fun.
The Green Fog loosely re-sketches Vertigo’s plot. It doesn’t slavishly recreate it shot for shot, or line for line, in fact there’s very little dialogue. It only covers the major beats, and most significantly, the major locations. As much as it’s a commentary on Vertigo, it is an essay about the filmic representation of San Francisco throughout history. We see the same spaces from different angles, captured with different technologies, for the purpose of telling all kinds of different stories. Maddin and his co-directors, Evan and Galen Johnson, build a map of the city across time. Some of the most interesting moments of the film are when the same landmark is shown over and over, across many films. We see Saints Peter and Paul Church framed as a colossal, impressive building, then as just a mundane feature blending into a dense city landscape. We see it in crisp black and white, buried in hazy 70s film grain, in modern high definition. The display of diverse documentation gives a sense of epic mythology. The Green Fog shows how media can define a place. It shows how a collection of disparate pieces can create a city in the minds of people who may have never been there physically.
As it comments on things as large as the city of San Francisco through repetition, it also comments on things on a more micro level- specific cinematic tropes, the way movement is captured, cinematic blocking and staging. It shows the same actions over and over, creating a continuum across different clips from different sources. In the opening we see men running on rooftops. Each dash shows us a sliver of varying San Francisco architecture, but it also displays the tropes of a foot chase. It’s incredible how many shots of a person running on a roof exist. There’s so much similarity in footage that spans decades, and when compiled it draws close attention to the small variations, the difference in film stock, lens, angle, lighting, etc. We see how many San Fran-set films have scenes where a woman slowly approaches a painting of another woman, and all the different ways that scene can be expressed.
This film, and Guy Maddin in general, is really, really funny. Scenes between characters are silent interactions of long stares and facial expressions that abruptly change with jump cuts. The dialogue is visibly excised, leaving only the feeling of the performance, without any expository or narrative context. Sometimes this technique results in gut-busting comedy. Sometimes it turns people like Chuck Norris into brilliant actors. Ironic editing, especially when it comes to cheating spaces and expanding time, makes for absurdist humor that plays like a cross between Monty Python and Tim and Eric.
The Green Fog is unlike anything else I saw in theaters in the past year. It’s a recreation of a film, about films, made up of other films. It’s an epic city symphony, a Hitchcockian thriller, and a postmodern comedy.
I give The Green Fog 9 shots of the Golden Gate Bridges out of 10 clips of a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie.
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