'The Green Fog': Film Review

Courtesy of Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson and Evan Johnson
A film-geek rhapsody on a once-great city and an immortal film.
1/5/2018

Guy Maddin's latest experimental feature combs through San Francisco-produced films and TV shows to craft an eerie, funny echo of 'Vertigo.'

Canadian visionary Guy Maddin has typically married his own artistic ideas to inspirations so old and/or obscure that viewers might well assume them (sometimes correctly) to be fictional. In The Green Fog, though, the key reference points are au courant. The hourlong experiment entertainingly answers a question nobody thought to ask: What if Guy Maddin made a Christian Marclay-style assemblage evoking the ghosts of pre-tech San Francisco and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo?

Guy Maddin and co-directors Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson didn't set out with Hitchcock in mind. Commissioned by Stanford and San Francisco's SFFILM, their project began as a montage-based look at the long history of movies produced in the area. According to interviews, the three men watched more than 200 such films, looking for scenes that would fit well together. Naturally, themes emerged — they could easily have made an all-earthquake film, or one that followed generations of actors up and down hills on the city's streetcar. Choosing instead to echo the structure of Vertigo, they multiplied the project's pleasures.

Right near Fog's start, after just a few clips setting the Bay Area scene, the directors reveal the picture's sense of humor. Moving from establishing shots to dialogue scenes, they clip out all the actual talking. Joseph Cotten (apparently in an episode of the 1970s cop series The Streets of San Francisco) sits on a flowered patio speaking with a woman, but their conversation is a silent series of jump cuts and pregnant pauses.

Through much of the film, this catalogue of reaction shots and anticipatory gestures serves two purposes. It animates the project with weird comedy — so many verbally constipated characters, all with such important things to say! — while ensuring that the divergent dialogue of scores of varied movies doesn't intrude on Fog's own loose narrative.

After we've settled in, noting the images that obliquely remind us of Scottie Ferguson's obsession with Madeleine Elster and their enigmatic beyond-the-grave romance, Maddin and company allow some of their playthings to talk. Midway through, businessmen look at a table-sized model of urban development and declare, "This is the San Francisco of the future."

"All the cities of the world are eroding, decaying, and dying," the voice continues; and if viewers are inclined to muse upon how the exact opposite has happened in the tech-money-fueled Bay Area, they may scowl when a slick man from another movie purrs, "I think you'll find our offer very generous."

But then he continues, speaking to a beautiful woman across a dinner table, and we're squarely back in the world of Hitchcock transforming women into the stuff of men's dreams: "We might want to do a little something about your hair ... maybe just a little tuck around the eyes."

These moments aside, the film's allusions to Hitchcock and local politics are rarely concrete enough to sully its overall dreamlike effect. A bewitching score by Jacob Garchik (performed by the Kronos Quartet) and smart layering of sound from the source films turns cut-and-pasted ingredients into a persuasive whole, despite the varied aesthetics of productions ranging from Barbary Coast to The Game to The Love Bug. (Viewers may keep a running list of favorites that didn't make the cut. Why no Zodiac here? What about The Room?)

The filmmakers' sole obvious addition to these materials is the eponymous fog, a mysterious smoke they've composited into some scenes. More than a literal fusing of the city's famous atmospheric conditions with the green hues of Vertigo, this fog takes on its own mind-bending significance, pushing the film toward the fever-dream territory of Maddin's other films. Even working with some of the most mainstream ingredients one could possibly find (including, in a funny moment, an NSYNC video) and one of the most familiar settings on earth, Guy Maddin knows how to make things strange.

Production company: Extra Large Productions
Directors: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson
Editors: Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson
Composer: Jacob Garchik

61 minutes

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