“The Ten Commandments. Herbie Rides Again. Portrait in Black. Arthur Hailey’s Hotel. The Lineup. The Lady From Shanghai. Sans Soleil. Innerspace. The House on Telegraph Hill. Mrs. Doubtfire. Pacific Heights. Patti Hearst. The Dead Pool. The Presidio. The Woman in Red. Pal Joey. The Organization. Killer Elite. Sister Act. Fearless. Mr. Ricco. Sudden Fear. Mission: Impossible episodes. Jagged Edge. The Zodiac Killer. The Laughing Policeman. Petulia. Julie. Experiment in Terror. Woman on the Run. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Birds. A Bucket of Blood. The Terminator. Godzilla. Take Me Away. Murder, She Wrote episodes. Dogfight. San Andreas.”
On the line from his Harvard office, Guy Maddin takes a deep breath and laughs. “You get the idea,” he says, before briefly resuming his litany. “Greed. The Rock. Anyway, lots of movies.”
This isn’t the syllabus for the filmmaking course Maddin has been teaching in Massachusetts, and perhaps that’s a good thing; as the Winnipeg-born auteur readily admits, there’s an ample vein of dross running through the Oscar gold listed here. What links these sundry films and TV dramas, though, is that they were all shot in or around the Bay Area—and that they’ve all contributed scenes to Maddin’s new collage-style tribute to San Francisco, The Green Fog, which makes its Canadian debut at the Vancouver International Film Festival this week.
The Green Fog is no mere montage, however. It’s also an absurd and exciting homage to what many consider “the greatest movie ever made”, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 noir classic Vertigo. Here, though, every scene has been replaced by excerpts from the productions listed above, with literally dozens of actors standing in for Hitchcock’s iconic stars James Stewart and Kim Novak. And yet it’s obviously a Maddin production: dizzying, surreal, and often swathed in uncanny light.
Initially, the project was simpler, beginning when San Francisco Film Society executive director Noah Cowan approached Maddin and his production team to make a “city symphony” about the organization’s home and its cinematic past. “You know, a lot of movies and television shows have been shot in San Francisco, and even before cinema was invented, Eadweard Muybridge lived in the Bay Area and was doing filmlike things with his famous nude models posing against gridworks, pouring buckets of water with their genitals dangling, or climbing stairs or running or whatever,” Maddin explains. “And the Bay Area’s not just had its soul sucked out of it by cameras over every decade of film history, but it’s also been the cradle of so many different things: experimental film; a lot of activism; the Black Panthers were founded in the Bay Area; in the Summer of Love it was the epicentre of hippies; earthquakes.…All this stuff appears and reappears.”
Maddin and his sibling codirectors, Evan and Galen Johnson, knew they wanted to work with found footage, but thought they’d follow symphonic form, crafting their film as a sequence of movements focusing on fires, earthquakes, the AIDS epidemic, and so on. Then the idea of a Vertigo remake struck.
“Of course, it’s all hubris,” Maddin says, laughing again. “But we’re preposterous people and we know how ridiculous we are, so we know when we’ve set ourselves a preposterous task.…You know you’re bound to fail, but in the failure is where it gets interesting. Where something is remarkably unimpressive, where things just fall miraculously way short of what we’re attempting to emulate, is where it gets great. And then you put this spectacular pratfall to music by Kronos Quartet, which is really gorgeous, it really makes for an interesting tension.”
Kronos, by the way, will perform Jacob Garchik’s score live at The Green Fog’s VIFF screening, adding another level of complexity to what, despite Maddin’s self-mockery, is a tour de force of rapid-fire editing. The filmmaker compares the process of re-creating Vertigo from snippets of plundered footage to the creation of sample-based music—with the caveat that he and the Johnsons respect copyright.
“Our chief collaborator there was a fair-use lawyer that the San Francisco film festival hired,” Maddin notes. “I know that with most sampling in music they don’t bother with lawyers, but we just wanted them [the SFIFF] to feel comfortable with what we’re doing. But, yeah, we’re sampling. We’re putting in something with a ’50s Technicolor palette at just the right moment, and then some sort of television-videotape ’80s palette. It was just a matter of matching and layering things so that there’s kind of a symphony of sampled emulsions and pixels and video noise.”
For the score, however, Garchik is playing it straight.
“I love sampling culture and love sampling, but the music really doesn’t do that,” the San Francisco–born composer and trombonist explains, in a separate telephone interview from his Brooklyn home. “It lets the film do that, and the music sort of goes against that. The idea is that it creates an illusion of all these different cuts becoming one thing. So that was my job: to sort of patch the gaps, if that makes any sense.”
The music, Garchik adds, is intended to accompany the viewer’s internal narrative, rather than to enforce one of its own. Anyone cine-savvy enough to be a film-festival regular will already have an idea of what Vertigo is about, he suggests, noting that he recently took in a screening of Hitchcock’s masterpiece in New York City’s biggest theatre—after he’d started work on The Green Fog’s score, but before Maddin and company had decided on their final plan.
“That was serendipitous,” he says. “And it could be fun, for some people, to watch Vertigo just before seeing the film. Or not: you can just experience it on your own. But it is kind of fun to have Vertigo refreshed in your mind, so that when you watch The Green Fog you can catch all the references going back and forth.”
Maddin wouldn’t disagree, calling The Green Fog “a movie about Vertigo as if it has existed as long as San Francisco”. Slightly less durable is his position as guest lecturer at Harvard, which comes to a close at the end of this semester.
“I like teaching a lot, but it does cut into my momentum as a filmmaker,” he says. “Still, it’s been a hilarious experience. I’ll probably come up with a movie or a TV-series pitch out of it, something like The Stupidest Man at Harvard. That’s a big project—and you heard it here first!”
Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog screens at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Tuesday (October 10), as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival.More