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Guy Maddin's 'Vertigo' Homage Constructs a Dreamy San Francisco

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 8 January 2018
Take a tour of movie-made ’Frisco in Maddin’s found-footage marvel The Green Fog.

How strange it is to see modern-ish stars like Chuck Norris, Meg Ryan, Andy Garcia, Sandra Bullock, and Melanie Griffith in a Guy Maddin film. The Winnipeg auteur, famed for his brilliant serio-comic reinventions of ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s cinema, didn’t cast these actors and direct them. He found images of them and dozens of others in the 200 or so films he culled for The Green Fog, which he co-directed with the brothers Evan and Galen Johnson.

Fabulously fusty

Raised on Maddin’s championing of the fabulously fusty, his fan base may be relieved to see that The Green Fog includes closeups of ZaSu Pitts and Gibson Gowland from Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Dolores Costello from Alan Crosland’s Old San Francisco (1927). However, the new movie suggests Maddin may be moving on from the antique, as he has indicated in interviews that he might do.

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An exquisite shot of Dolores Costello in Old San Francisco (1927) that appears in The Green Fog | ©Warner Bros./©Balcony Releasing

Commissioned by the San Francisco Film Society and screened as the closing movie of last April’s San Francisco Film Festival, the 63-minute The Green Fog was intended as a collage of scenes and images from movies shot in the Bay Area, but it emerged as a “rhapsody”—as Maddin described it to IndieWire—on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), the most iconic of all San Francisco films. It serves also as a concert film for Jacob Garchik’s rumblingly melodramatic original score, which is performed by San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet.

Experimental riff

Whereas Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho was a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker, The Green Fog is an experimental riff on Vertigo, Maddin’s favorite film, and San Francisco itself. It loosely follows the story in which James Stewart’s vertigo-afflicted ex-detective “Scottie” Ferguson is tricked by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) into following his wife, Madeleine, only to discover that his dressed-up quarry is Elster’s ex-mistress, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), who has been enlisted by Elster in a plot to kill his real wife.

Possessed by the dead: Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) looks at John Ferren’s Carlotta Valdes portrait in Vertigo (1958) | © Universal Pictures

The shots chosen by Maddin and the Johnson brothers are mosaicked into a geographic impression of Vertigo, conjuring less a Hitchcockian mood of suspense than an ominously pre-apocalyptic tone that owes to the green fog, a digitally achieved affect, that descends on the city early on. It prefigures a new San Francisco earthquake and fire—partially borrowed from The Towering Inferno (1974)—that augurs Maddin’s version of Vertigo‘s climax. The images of people plummeting from towers inevitably recall 9/11.

La Lollo lolls around

Maddin’s ’Frisco is less a city of residents and workers than a dreamy, movie-and-TV-made simulacrum of a city. How could it not be with the likes of Richard Gere, Kim Basinger, Donald Sutherland, Lee Remick, Michael Douglas and Karl Malden from The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77), and Valentina Cortese wandering around—or, in the case of Novak surrogates Gina Lollobrogida and Doris Day, lolling around? Most of these actors have had their dialogue snipped out, and jump cuts make it seem as if they are lost for words, adding enormously to the film’s humor.

Born to Be Bad
Echoing Vertigo: A schoolgirl visitor (Ann Burr) at a San Francisco art gallery looks at Ernst Van Leyden’s portrait of Christabel Caine Carey (Joan Fontaine) in Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950), a shot included in The Green Fog | © RKO Pictures/© Balcony Releasing

The Golden Gate Bridge, Grace Cathedral (glimpsed in construction in one vintage shot), San Francisco Bay, Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, ’Frisco’s rollercoaster streets, and other familiar places become sites of strangeness at the intersection of ungovernable romantic obsession and looming disaster. Why shouldn’t Scotty’s obsession with Madeleine, and his fetishistic attempt to make over Judy to resemble her, trigger an explosion—at least in his head?

Chuck Norris, blond Adonis

Given the film’s multiple visual quotations, there is no single subjective perspective on The Green Fog’s action. A montage of clips of Chuck Norris’s narc in An Eye for an Eye briefly swamps the film near the mid-point, jokily positing the notion that the taciturn action hero was someone’s idea of a blond Adonis in 1981. He’s also a dreamer awoken in a sweat by a shout on the soundtrack.

Blond Adonis? Chuck Norris as San Francisco narcotics cop Sean Kane in Steve Carver’s An Eye for an Eye (1981), one of many shots of Norris in The Green Fog | © Embassy Pictures/ © Balcony Releasing

However, the movie’s MC is Rock Hudson as Police Commissioner Stuart “Mac” McMillan from NBC’s McMillan & Wife and McMillan (1971–77). Maddin’s Vertigo storyline is being eavesdropped on by a team of surveillance men in a van. The footage they apparently record is watched by Mac in a police building.

“Meta” surrogate

Though under gunpoint in several shots, Mac prevails over the pullulating clips and plays a “meta” surrogate for Maddin, the seeker of frames and shots that both predict and comment on Vertigo. “What are you looking for, Sir?” one of Mac’s officers asks him. “I don’t know, but at this point I’ll take anything,” Mac replies, indicating a problem that every film editor must face in the cutting room from time to time.

Karl Malden, Michael Douglas, and Chuck Norris also “play” editors sitting at consoles, the latter ordering surveillance film to be rewound and replayed, which is what happens to The Green Fog the next moment. Malden’s rewound shot “is a little fuzzy but I’ll take it.”

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Firestarter: Stuart ‘Mac’ McMillan (Rock Hudson) in McMillan & Wife (1971-77), a shot included in The Green Fog | © NBC/ ©Balcony Releasing

At one point, Mac turns archivist by ordering footage to be kept as evidence. He’s munching a sandwich when a projector stalls. “That ‘s the trouble with that old film,” he observes. Toward the end, he sets a barrel of outtakes alight by throwing a cigarette into it. The smoke spreads and mingles with the green fog, which gets everywhere, including all over Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear.

Burning down the house

The Green Fog, then, is more than just a Vertigo remake or a paean to San Francisco akin to Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2004/2014). It’s also the playful statement of a found-footage filmmaker at the end of his tether, who’s a little tempted by the idea of burning down the house. Hopefully, it doesn’t mean Guy Maddin is saying goodbye to old movies or their divine ghostliness.

The Green Fog is screening at IFC Center in Manhattan.