The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, 2017)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Green Fog.

Commissioned by the San Francisco Film Society to close the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival, The Green Fog is the latest from Canadian iconoclast Guy Maddin and is an unusually evocative homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo assembled from Bay Area footage taken from a diverse array of sources including studio classics, ’50s noir, experimental films, and ’70s prime-time TV. With the help of co-directors Evan and Galen Johnson, composer Jacob Garchik, and musicians Kronos Quartet, this San Francisco fantasia celebrates the city through a century’s worth of assembled film and television, while also capturing the obsessive pull of Hitchcock’s spellbinding classic. The result is inventive, invigorating, and hilariously quirky, offering a “parallel-universe version” of a canonical cinema masterpiece, an unlikely city symphony, and a refreshing document of film history.


“Kind of a hobby, a do-it-yourself kind of thing!”

The commission from Noah Cowan (then-executive director of the San Francisco Film Society) was to originally have Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin provide a 45-minute found footage film that explored San Francisco through its various cinematic and televisual representations. Maddin, who was teaching at Harvard, enlisted the assistance of his collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson who set upon the task of watching 350 to 400 San Francisco-based films and finding in them themes for their potential city symphony. Among the “earthquakes, free love, beatniks, dangling men, falling men, car chases, churches, AIDS,” and more, the trio discovered “that little bits of Vertigo floated up … in the form of both homages and coincidences” and Hitchcock’s classic became a much-needed organizing theme for the project given its short deadline. Cowan’s metropolitan portrait transformed into an idiosyncratic re-imagining of cinema’s freshly anointed kingpin, tangentially conjuring the city and its most iconic film through 100 different movies and TV shows, one *NSYNC music video, and a lot of stock footage.

“Do you believe that someone out of the past — someone dead — can enter and take possession of a living being?”

Only one shot from Vertigo actually appears in The Green Fog: Hitchcock’s opening image of a ladder rung in close-up. The remainder of The Green Fog slides between all kinds of movies and television shows to trace Vertigo‘s general plot, giving the impression of the classic film rather than aiming to actually re-make it. City symphonies, that certain type of experimental documentary popular in the 1920s and 1930s, took a similarly impressionistic approach to portraying urban living, usually providing a fragmented and layered representation of city life without claiming any totalizing view. Maddin had previously approached the city symphony form in My Winnipeg (2007), a commission by the Documentary Channel that resulted in a “docu-fantasia” unbound from historical fidelity, and The Green Fog takes the same liberties with Vertigo that My Winnipeg took with civic history. The result is an oddly comic piece of digital termite art.

In The Green Fog, all manner of content stands in for Vertigo: action films, romantic thrillers, film noirs, monster movies, primetime soap operas, and detective shows. James Stewart’s Scottie is cast by a carousel of diverse performers including Joseph Cotten, Vincent Price, Dean Martin, Gibson Gowland, John Saxon, Dick Miller, Andy Griffith, and Nicolas Cage. Maddin and the Johnsons solved the riddle of lacking Vertigo‘s dialogue by removing almost all the speech from their sampled content, resulting in a collection of awkward, scrolling silences where characters convey Hitchcock’s scenes in silent, jump cutting pantomimes loaded with sighs, clenched jaws, and desperate eyes. (Maddin refers to “scrolling” as a particular style of editing developed previously by him and editor John Gurdebeke that mimics memory by skipping back and forth through a recollected event without linear conformity.) The effect is often comical and The Green Fog declares its absurdity early on when the film’s first chapter title, “Weekend at Ernie’s,” appears on screen, a joking nod to the famous San Francisco restaurant that figures in Vertigo and a more sophomoric take on the idea of touring around town with a dead person. “Weekend” ends with Madeleine’s death and the balance of Vertigo is contained in The Green Fog’s second and final chapter, “Catatonia.” There, Scottie’s melancholy, obsessiveness, and anger reaches cataclysmic proportions, however this latter section’s stand-out sequence is a collage of shots from Steve Carver’s An Eye for an Eye (1981) where a grieving Chuck Norris achieves what Maddin calls “Bressonian expressionlessness.” Carlos Ray Norris (“Ground Chuck” to his Air Force buddies) never looked so good.

In addition to its impressionistic approach, city symphonies are also typified by their tendency to present a cross-sectional view of their subjects, representing city life at an array of stations and activities. The Green Fog does no less for both San Francisco and Hitchcock’s film. Vertigo‘s flattened history shared between Kim Novak’s Madeleine and the tragic Carlotta compares to the multitude of contexts and eras we see iconic San Francisco landmarks like the Brocklebank Apartments, the Mission Dolores, Fort Point, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Class, which Hitchcock contrasts between middle class Scottie, the upper class Elsters, and working class Judy, is surveyed in The Green Fog‘s comparison of film and television, of A-picture dramas, lower bill B-pictures, weekly melodramas, and formulaic crime shows. Even race, which runs as an undercurrent in Vertigo between Madeleine’s WASP-ish affluence and the rejected Carlotta’s Mexican heritage, finds brief moments in The Green Fog to push against the starched white hegemony of mainstream media, such as by the appearance of Sidney Poitier in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (Gordon Douglas, 1970). The Green Fog often reveals its cross-sections from behind the wheel, driving through these various spaces much as Scottie does in Vertigo. Seen at street level, San Francisco’s most reliable constant is its distinctive topography, full of highs and lows and complicated routes that are always present to reflect upon the fortunes of the city and its inhabitants.

“You know, a man could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom.”

The proliferation of driving makes for an abundance of windshields to look through, and The Green Fog leans hard into the act of watching and all the Hitchcockian baggage that goes with it. Maddin and the Johnsons are most explicit in this concern with a framing device introduced in The Green Fog‘s “Prologue” where Rock Hudson (lifted from the TV series McMillan & Wife) is forced to watch The Green Fog with us at gunpoint. Hudson’s impassive observation of The Green Fog‘s diegesis recurs throughout, sometimes compelled by his captor and at other times alone or with his housekeeper. At one point, Hudson scrutinizes the footage from a police station’s media room. When asked what he’s looking for, Hudson comically replies, “I don’t know, but at this point I’ll take anything.” (What he gets is *NSYNC’s music video for “This I Promise You” standing in for Scottie and Madeleine’s visit to Muir Woods.) The Green Fog plays comically loose with this framing device as it proceeds. At one point, Chuck Norris watches his own performance, has his watching surveilled by another man, and then returns to watching The Green Fog. At another point, Hudson is taken aback when the woman he watches onscreen walks in on him at the same time. In its cheekiest moment, Michael Douglas (circa The Streets of San Francisco) watches footage of a naked Michael Douglas (circa Basic Instinct) and remarks, “You really look good, Mike. Did you ever think about going into show business?”

Of course, Vertigo is more than a movie simply to be watched; it is a film about being watched and the disposing and damaging power of the masculine view. Maddin describes it as “the ultimate male gaze movie,” one that both epitomizes the power of the male gaze and offers a substantial critique of it. Scenes of The Green Fog‘s surveillance appear frequently and always position men in the roles of observers, whether it’s Rock Hudson or various non-descript men clustered together and wearing headphones. These moments recall the use of concealed cameras in city symphonies, however Maddin and the Johnsons also offer moments of resistance to that objectification. In one of The Green Fog‘s many scenes of awkward, silent dining, two woman engage in some rare dialogue when one admits that she likes going to the museum alone on Saturdays. The comment offers a modest glimpse into the Madeleine/Judy character. “It passes the Bechdel test,” Maddin observes. “Not even Vertigo does that.” Other moments push back against the tyranny of the male gaze as well. An early montage shows various women uneasily considering portraits of feminine beauty. The sequence gives way to women destroying these paintings and when The Green Fog‘s Scottie figure re-enters the scene, a ripple in the film stock distorts and bisects him, figuratively transferring their resentments of such constructed femininity on him and the medium itself.  Ultimately, The Green Fog‘s most pointedly critical recalibration of Vertigo arrives at its end by having Scottie, not Madeleine, fall from the belltower of the Mission San Juan Bautista (and with a dummy’s underwhelming “thud” no less).

“The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.”

Speaking about Vertigo, Paula Marantz Cohen refers to a “world of surface appearances” that describes “not the world leading into the mysteries of the individual mind but the individual mind opening out into the chaos of the world.” The Green Fog makes the most of this play of surfaces by delighting in unusual equivalences and over-determined repetitions that go even farther than those in Phoenix Tapes. For Maddin and the Johnsons, home renovations in John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights (1990) stand in for Scottie’s make-over of Judy into Madeleine and Donald Sutherland’s alien scream in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978) conveys Scottie’s terrible recognition of Carlotta’s necklace being worn by Judy. And as meanings in the film multiply, Cohen’s chaos seeps through, embodied in the film’s titular “green fog.” Galen Johnson describes it as an “off-gas,” a dangerous discharge emitted from Vertigo‘s “surplus of love.” The fog, a distinctively San Franciscan characteristic, makes some early appearances in the film but it runs rampant upon Scottie’s achievement in remaking Judy into Madeleine. As the pair embrace, the green fog fills their room, then their building, and ultimately overruns the city, although it does not destroy it. The Green Fog capitalizes on San Francisco’s history of natural disasters with the one-two punch of tremors born from Scottie’s anger at Judy and a fire ignited in a barrel of film stock by Rock Hudson as a diversionary tactic, binding film and masculine control issues in one disastrous knot.

“The law has little to say on things left undone.”

MMC! has stumped for all kinds of film assemblages notwithstanding the potential impediment of rights and licensing issues, however a Criterion edition of The Green Fog might have the greatest probability for release. While the Johnson brothers screened content and cut sequences for Maddin to review, Maddin worked closely with a copyright lawyer. Sections of the film were screened and Maddin received legal clearance from the lawyer, direction to tighten up his rationale for including the content, or instruction to abandon an approach altogether. Accordingly, Maddin and the Johnsons have real trust in The Green Fog‘s legal footing and are quick to point out the successful release of Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) on Blu-ray five years ago. Maddin is already a favourite of the label and The Green Fog might be the closest the Criterion Collection comes to releasing Vertigo, so it’s easy to imagine Maddin claiming a third spine number for his own. The film’s current poster, with its central quote from Henri-Frédéric Amiel and its image of Go Naked in the World‘s Gina Lollobrigida and Anthony Franciosa embracing amid that irradiated mist, would work well as a Criterion cover treatment. “Bag it!”

Credits: The cover summary was adapted from the Balcony Booking synopsis. Bilge Ebiri was chosen to provide a booklet essay given his past relationship with the Collection, his effusive review for The Village Voice, and his naming the score among his top ten scores of 2018.

This post owes credit to Darren Wershler’s Canadian Cinema monograph on Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Richard Allen and S. Ishii Gonzales’ Hitchcock: Centenary Essays, particularly Joe McElhaney’s “Touching the Surface: Marnie, Melodrama, Modernism,” James Naremore’s “Hitchcock at the Margins of Noir,” Susan White’s “Vertigo and Problems of Knowledge in Feminist Film Theory,” and Robert J. Corber’s “‘You wanna check my thumbprints?’: Vertigo, the Trope of Invisibility and Cold War Nationalism.” This post also drew upon reviews by Jonathan Romney for Film CommentEric Kohn for IndieWire, Ben Kenigsberg for The New York Times, Ty Burr for The Boston Globe, Justin Chang for The Los Angeles Times, Demetrios Matheou for Screen Daily, Josh Hamm for The Playlist, John DeFore for The Hollywood Reporter, Lawrence Garcia for Cinema Scope, J.R. Jones for Chicago Reader, Philip Concannon for The Skinny, Calvin Kemph for The Twin Geeks, and Andreea Patru for Vague Visages, as well as Joshua Encinias’ interview for The Film Stage. Those looking for more on city symphonies should consider Sarah Jilani’s “Urban Modernity and Fluctuating Time: ‘Catching the Tempo’ of the 1920s City Symphony Films,” Alexander Graf’s “Paris — Berlin — Moscow: On the Montage Aesthetic in the City Symphony Films of the 1920s,” Jiri Kolaja and Arnold W. Foster’s “”‘Berlin, the Symphony of a City’ as a Theme of Visual Rhythm,” and Keith Beattie’s “From City Symphony to Global City Film: Documentary Display and the Corporeal.”

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