I first saw The Green Fog at its world premiere as the closing night event of the San Francisco International Film Festival, presented at the historic Castro Theatre, with the Kronos Quartet giving a live performance of Jacob Garchik’s original score. Commissioned by the festival from directors Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, and billed as a “San Francisco Fantasia,” the film felt like something that belonged to a particular time and place — a delirious reconstruction of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, created out of hundreds of clips from movies and shows shot in the Bay Area that were very much not Vertigo. It certainly made for a cinematic experience, but I had no idea if this Green Fog could be replicated as a mere film, to be screened elsewhere.
Now that The Green Fog has arrived at the IFC Center, I’m happy to report that Maddin and his collaborators have succeeded in turning it into something that can stand on its own. They have reportedly not done much new to the footage, though they have toyed with the soundtrack — adding sound effects and, at a couple of points, fading the score in and out. Even so, what I saw in San Francisco, perhaps because of the live setting, felt looser, fragmented — more an exploration of Vertigo than a re-creation of it, revealing all the ways that Hitchcock’s masterpiece has sunk into our cinematic spiritus mundi through repeated gestures, glances, and images found in countless other works. (Some of these were made long before Vertigo, of course, because what is Vertigo itself but a laying bare of neurotic obsessions that were always there?) Watching it anew, I can see that The Green Fog fairly closely follows the structure of Hitchcock’s film; achieving that in itself is some sort of accomplishment. However, it’s not so much an assemblage as it is a conjuring. You don’t just watch these clips — you see through and between them. The juxtapositions create vital, cosmic connections.
Maddin has made a career out of mining the latent tensions of mainstream cinema, often by pushing the styles and attitudes of classical filmmaking to absurdist extremes. This time, playing with existing footage, he and his collaborators do something similar, but the effect is more subtle, and in its own way more expansive. We watch clips and clips of men communing across restaurant tables, with all the dialogue parts removed, and the silent, tense exchanges start to gain a sexual charge — as if every form of human interaction has suddenly been reduced to a series of secret impulses and desires. Lust, repression, voyeurism, and narcissism all turn out to be part of the same spectrum: Men watch women from cars, in restaurants, across rooms, on screens — just as Jimmy Stewart watched Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s original, and as we do whenever we watch Vertigo. But they also watch other men. And sometimes they watch themselves. Through the magic of the most basic of editing tricks, Rock Hudson watches footage of *NSync singing in a forest. Michael Douglas from The Streets of San Francisco watches footage of his own naked behind (from Basic Instinct) and remarks, “Well, you look good, Mike. Ever thought about going into showbiz?”
At times, the playfulness reaches moments of sublime, unlikely beauty. The passages of Vertigo that concern Stewart’s post-traumatic catatonia coincide in The Green Fog with a masterful reverie on Chuck Norris’s face in An Eye for an Eye, remixed here so that the action lug’s impassive mug attains a melancholy grandeur; you want to laugh, but it’s all done so beautifully that you come away genuinely moved. That’s the magic of The Green Fog. It envelops you and pulls you into its own world, teaching you to see again. I’m familiar with most of the films and shows used here, but I could only recognize a small handful while actually watching the movie. You might come for the clips, but you leave with your brain on fire.
The Green Fog
Directed by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson
Opens January 5, IFC Center