Vertigo (1958) is a heralded masterpiece. It now ranks at the height of the Sight and Sound‘s 50 Greatest Films list, toppling the long-reigning Citizen Kane (1941). It’s evidently well admired, with an enduring legacy within one of cinema’s most favored locations: the hallowed, heavily photographed grounds of San Francisco. The Green Fog is a love letter, both to Hitchcock’s enduring masterpiece and the city which holds so much of that film’s heart. Guy Maddin, ever the provocateur, has often dealt in retro stylings. He finds an enthusiastic newness in styles and techniques thought to be outmoded for half a century. A great artist makes everything new, and Maddin works on the verge of the craft. My Winnipeg (2007), ever dear to my heart, is another near-perfect work of compiling new and old. Here, he has assembled a collage of films that build a grand portrait of Vertigo. He uses around one-hundred films, all anchored in the overshot San Francisco, and somehow, someway, finds a genuine and form-affirming newness in their compilation.
It’s crucial to note that the project was commissioned by the San Francisco Film Festival. This could’ve been a limp tourism piece by any other hand, but Maddin, with oft-collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson, has an uncompromised vision. This is a work of great academic interest. The best viewing arrangement must be by way of Film Festival or Museum. That is not the sort of hyperbolic reaction to art you sometimes get – this would function more nicely as an hour-long museum exhibition than something streamed right to your television.
The Green Fog goes silently for a long time, barring an ethereally piercing soundtrack performed by the Kronos Quarter (arranged by Jacob Garchik). The audiovisual combination is that the haunting score matches old footage that gives way to vaporous green clouds, one of the few impositions by its filmmakers. We think, this must work like classic silent films (remember those used to have audio backing anyway), as the film teases and subverts our expectations. The cuts all come as actors are sucking in air, sighing, preparing to talk – snap cut to a reaction. More gathering air, preparing for some speech – reaction. It seems like it’ll go this way for a while, until it reaches a moment of a great epiphany by voiceover:
“Let the mystery have its place in you… If you are conscious of something new – thought or feeling, wakening in the depths of your being – do not be in a hurry to let in light upon it, to look at it; let the springing germ have the protection of being forgotten, hedge it round with quiet, and do not break in upon its darkness; let it take shape and grow, and not a word of your happiness to any one!”
By this point, we’re forming reactions. Trying to understand our relationship to these films within their new context. You have seen many of them, but maybe can only place every few examples. Many are used for their location-based context. It does not have to include the best moments of The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977), nor Dark Passage (1947), nor Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), it only has to capture the moments that build a story about Vertigo and San Francisco. What the above passage does for us is reminds us to let go of our preconceptions, lest we may never allow ourselves a new experience with film. This is the auteur offering to expand our relationship with art.
Only a single establishing shot is used from Vertigo, James Stewart grappling up a ladder, and everything else is free association. It’s greatly beneficial to The Green Fog that it’s captured both familiar territory from before and after Hitchcock’s best. A film’s influences never begin within the film itself, but through the accumulation of all the culture that preceded it. Guy Maddin remains a masterful manipulator of time and space. What’s most remarkable is that he’s taken all the commonality of San Franciscan cinema and given it new life, making it startling and new.