Guy Maddin’s last feature, The Forbidden Room, was a kaleidoscopic homage to early cinema. Co-directed by his former student Evan Johnson, it took the form of a proliferation of nested narratives, each segment riffing on the tantalising title or synopsis of a lost film from the medium’s adolescent years.1 Maddin’s latest feature-length offering, The Green Fog, finds him once again teaming up with both Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson (who served as production designer on The Forbidden Room) – this time, in order to pay homage to one of the most famous and most lauded films ever made: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
While the premise of The Forbidden Room was the recreation of lost footage, this new film is an exercise in the repurposing of found footage. Comprised entirely of clips from 100 or so films and TV shows set in San Francisco (where Hitchcock’s psycho-thriller plays out), The Green Fog is a remake – but only in the loosest, liveliest sense of the term. With evident glee, Maddin and the cousins Johnson stitch together shots from classic noir and science-fiction films, feel-good nineties comedies, and B-grade melodramas, fashioning them into a Vertiginous sequence. It’s a characteristically self-aware endeavour: many of the sequences play out as films within films, as men in some scungy control room surveil the screen, rewind bits and play them back – much as Maddin, Johnson, and Johnson presumably did.
Like The Forbidden Room, The Green Fog is smart and silly in equal measure, and evidences the directors’ love for the subject matter as much as their irreverence towards it. The film is a feat of editing, clocking in at half of Vertigo’s two-hour run time, while largely preserving its narrative beats – although some are contracted, reduced to a few suggestive seconds, and others prised open, extended through the repetition of a single action or gesture, as it occurs in multiple texts. Jacob Garchik’s suitably Herrmann-esque score, performed by the Kronos Quartet, helps smooth over the staccato imagery.
Commissioned as the closing night film for the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival, The Green Fog is a twisted, 21st century take on the city symphony – a sort of schizophrenic “San Francisco Plays Itself”. While the classic city symphony films of the 1920s provided insight into a specific time and place, The Green Fog looks at its city from multiple temporal vantage points, highlighting that which has remained relatively static over the years. The architectural landmarks that feature so prominently in Vertigo – the Golden Gate Bridge, for example, as well as the city’s famously steep streetscapes – appear repeatedly here, the images drawn from a variety of sources, and sporting disparate aesthetics and production values.
San Francisco may play itself in The Green Fog, but the lead roles of Scottie, traumatised ex-detective, and Madeleine Elster, the object of his obsessive desires – originally played by James Stewart and Kim Novak – are inhabited by dozens of actors and actresses, the pair splintering into an expansive ensemble cast. Much of the film’s comedy arises from the mashing-up of totally different performances: from Humphrey Bogart to Chuck Norris, from Joan Crawford to Meg Ryan, Maddin, Johnson, and Johnson have been strategically indiscriminate in curating their gallery of unwitting Scotties and Madeleines. With The Green Fog, they take the principle Buñuel applied in That Obscure Object of Desire, casting two actresses in a single role, to its logical extremes. In doing so, they reveal the universality of Vertigo’s themes; similar expressions of love, fear, loss, and madness ripple across a sea of different faces – much as San Francisco’s landmarks recur across the different films set there.
This fragmented approach to character is fitting, given the identity crises that punctuate Vertigo. Those familiar with the film will recall that Scottie is asked to tail Madeleine because her husband thinks – or rather, claims to think – that she has been possessed by a long-dead ancestor. When Scottie witnesses her apparent suicide, he becomes virtually catatonic; a shadow of his former self. Only the sight of Judy, a young woman who bears an eerie resemblance to Madeleine, re-animates him – and he becomes fixated on transforming her into an exact replica of his lost love.
Scottie’s perverse determination to remake Judy in Madeleine’s exact image, right down to her bleached blonde bun and grey skirt suit, represents the inverse of Maddin, Johnson, and Johnson’s approach to remaking Vertigo. While Scottie desired a seamless double of Madeleine, the directors of The Green Fog offer a deliberately sketchy impression of Hitchcock’s film; playful and expressionistic rather than strictly mimetic.