As if Vertigo’s creative foray into subtext and psycho-sensual affect was not cryptic enough, Maddin, Johnson, and Johnson experiment with the abstraction of archival San Francisco film footage to present an audio-visual parallel of the film’s narrative, rendering it at once an elucidation and a transformation thereof.
Commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Festival as a Closing Gala city celebration, The Green Fog takes clips from San Francisco shot films to reimagine what is the most iconic San Fran film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is incidentally considered by Sight & Sound the greatest film of all time—having recently taken the helm from Welles’ Citizen Kane.
At both SFFilm Festival and VIFF, the renowned Kronos Quartet performed an original score composed by Jacob Garchik, inspired by the tension building soundtracks of the Master of Suspense’s longtime collaborator Bernard Hermann. They use string instruments as well as pools of water and metallic plates to create unique sounds befitting the film’s anti-narrative, often pausing into silence or slowly raising volume for intended effect.
If you have experienced one of Guy Maddin’s fever dreams, such as 2015s The Forbidden Room—which he also co-directed with Evan Johnson—his method of layering the strange, the absurd, the humorous, the poignant, and the brilliant on a varied tableaux of audio-visual forms may read familiar. And for those keen on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the underlying narrative which cribs a handful of distinctive scenes such as the falls, the streets, and Madeline’s spiral hair bun may too read familiar. To those caught unawares, a maddening journey into strange territory is in store.
The audio-visual images sequined together in collage form a strangely humorous yet hypnotic tone. The directors deftly balance between eccentric-funny and eccentric-genius; The Green Fog is at once a big fun joke and a serious artistic achievement. Such range in expression guides viewers on a sensory journey wherein one’s emotional reception to sound, image, and music is continually in flux. It makes for a highly playful yet tense and perhaps awe-inspiring experience.
Dozens of feature films, commercials, music videos, and found footage of amateur artists are collected and edited together to create this city symphony, a parallel universe perhaps not only to Vertigo but to Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, one of the earliest made experimental films. The use of montage and cityscapes are certainly relatable, though it is unlikely that Vertov’s opus is an actual source. The number of sequences on the streets of San Francisco is particularly of note, as clips from various films are edited to depict specific roads being traveled. It is quite astonishing to see just how well these films line up in regards to cinematography in spite of drawing upon markedly dissimilar aesthetic flourishes.
Another relatable project is Christian Marclay’s 24hr art installation The Clock which pieces together footage of films which feature real-time readings on clocks and timepieces in the scenes. There is no narrative through line in The Clock, such as how Vertigo underlines The Green Fog, but the appropriation of cinematic footage as a means of transforming cinema is nothing short of remarkable. The sheer amount of time and manpower to both research and edit such massive undertakings is astounding—Evan Johnson mentioned that they had to watch films at 1.5x speed in order to get through it all. This perhaps explains how they came to the decision to snip out dialogue, as dialogue simply slows down a film’s unfolding visual story. It is also funny and brings into play an oddly sexual and tense form of levity.
For the film to work, Maddin, Johnson, and Johnson make use of both imaginary and off screen space. Characters, though different people from different films, are meant to blend together as image of singular person; props serve as objects to abstractly identify with what it is meant to parallel, at times this is something of an interpretation made tangible where character, object, or prop become sources of clarity rather than obfuscation. Scotty’s catatonia and pyscho-sexual unrest, for example, is made observable in the long sequence of Chuck Norris’ blank stares, moments which take the Bressonian model to culminate in the spiritual apotheosis of man.
Notably, only one shot from Vertigo is used, the hand over the bar to introduce the film, though a specific shot during the climactic second fall appears exactly like the one in Vertigo—I am curious now as to where this shot was culled from. The directors intended to leave Vertigo out of the film entirely but decided to give it a little nod. During the post screening Q&A, Johnson stated that they wanted to use the name Weekend at Ernie’s—which became the title of the first chapter. Johnson claims that both Weekend at Bernie’s and Vertigo depict resurrection in the same way. On looking to both films, the type of resurrection he suggests is one which exists within imaginary space, a fever dream of the characters who have fancied it up. In much the same way, The Green Fog serves as Vertigo’s resurrection into the imagined parallel space of three iconoclastic dreamers fancying it up.
The Green Fog serves as Vertigo’s resurrection into the imagined parallel space of three iconoclastic dreamers fancying it up.