Film Review: The Green Fog

Homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 'Vertigo' and the city of San Francisco is at turns amusing, cryptic, moving and profound.
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Fans of the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo are sure to have mixed reactions to The Green Fog’s approach to honoring this classic among classics; of course, an ambivalent response would be perfectly appropriate given the attraction/repulsion the original film’s “hero” (James Stewart) feels about the object of desire with whom he is obsessed (Kim Novak). Despite The Green Fog’s semi-abstract quality, the Hitchcock name might draw out more than the usual art-house crowd for this one.

Guy Maddin and his co-directors, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, bravely “take on” the movie that hit the number-one spot on the 2012 British Film Institute poll of international critics. No longer yet another title in the Hitchcock canon, Vertigo has become a touchstone in popular culture, from movie-buff adoration to academic-world fascination.

Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, My Winnipeg) and his team revere the 1958 Paramount release without using excerpts from the original or officially remaking any of its scenes; rather, they assemble footage from nearly every other TV show, newsreel or movie (yes, even High Anxiety from 1978) that ever took place in the same location, “the City by the Bay,” though most of the dialogue is deleted. It is a daring experiment but more refreshing an idea than a traditional documentary or actual remake. (Think of Brian De Palma’s 1976 Obsession.)

For those who have never seen Vertigo, The Green Fog might prove downright baffling, given that the references are often oblique. For those familiar with Vertigo, the experience of figuring out all the allusions will either be a visceral treat or an intellectual, slightly exhausting challenge.

For starters, there is the “the green fog” itself. Some of this misty coloring of shots was developed via a computerized effect; nevertheless, it distinctly recalls the scene in Judy’s room where the neon glow from the hotel sign outside her apartment window illuminates the interior space, including Judy (Novak) herself, with a ghostly jade-green tint. Showing excerpts from Cold War sci-fi ’50s thrillers and equating Judy with an alien, colored “other” is a subtle, clever device within the first few minutes of The Green Fog, perhaps highlighting part of Hitchcock’s intent.

From there, an extra-large close-up of an eye evokes Saul Bass’s title sequence that deconstructs Novak’s worried facial features; Rock Hudson, in scenes from the ’70s “MacMillan & Wife,” is placed in the Jimmy Stewart San Francisco detective role—but with the added element of “queer” politics (both because of Vertigo’s historic location and its subtext of male domination gone awry but also due to the closeted sex life of Hudson). In one sequence, as part of his investigation, Hudson as MacMillan intently observes an N’Sync music-video shot in a forest resembling the famous and phallic(?) scene among the sequoias! This latter type of quote had been a strategy of Mark Rappaport’s 1992 pseudo-documentary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, and there are other points when the Maddin production is reminiscent of Rappaport’s found-footage compilations, without the same degree of overt commentary.

More prosaic, less complex citations come from other film noir movies and TV crime shows. We are inundated with a series of rooftop chases by the police after the criminals, just as Vertigo begins its narrative. In these moments, even the score by Jacob Garchik (performed by the Kronos Quartet) sounds very similar to Bernard Herrmann’s legendary compositions—otherwise, Garchik’s music is harsher, more discordant than Herrmann’s. Elsewhere, pure Hitchcock techniques are on display, notably POV shots through the windows of cars going up or down the city streets; and a few clips appear like direct copies of “takes” from Vertigo itself, whether they are of churches, cemeteries or bell towers.

It is debatable how much The Green Fog criticizes Vertigo for its retro qualities. At least there are moments that stand out in a feminist way. Virginia Grey, a supporting player in Portrait in Black (1960), wearing a green version of Madeleine’s grey suit, is seen at angles that conjure a depressed, older, nearly anorexic Madeleine/Judy, or what would have become of a once voluptuous, more desired woman had her character lived on without attaching herself to a “sugar daddy.” A couple of latter-day TV-show “makeover” scenes mirror the 1958 original in every fashion except in their lack of artistry, underlining that times haven’t changed much regarding the demands upon women to live up to a certain kind of beauty mystique.

There are other ways Maddin and his team could have been more pointed in questioning what has nudged Vertigo through the decades from underrated to overrated status. Certainly, most of the campier aspects and technical errors have been overlooked.

Still, The Green Fog seems to affirm that all roads lead to Hitchcock. A shot of a man and woman in handcuffs owes itself to The 39 Steps (1935). One montage of bits from a“Streets of San Francisco” episode highlights the work of guest star Joseph Cotten. True, the flowers in the fragmented scene could be yet another reference to Vertigo, but Cotten will forever be remembered as the psychotic Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), set in northern California, incidentally, no matter what kind of other villain or nice character Cotten might be playing in the series of clips included here.

Further, in a remarkable flash of head-spinning postmodernism, Louis Jourdan embraces Doris Day in Julie (1956), next to a dead tree startlingly similar to the one that frames the first big kiss in Vertigo two year later. The kicker is that Julie was produced the same year as the Day-Hitchcock Man Who Knew Too Much! The remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) features Veronica Cartwright, child star of The Birds (1963), menaced in both thrillers, and let’s not forget that even Karl Malden was a warped Hitchcock detective in I Confess (1953) two decades before his “Streets of San Francisco” gig. The connections are endless.

For some, The Green Fog will merely annoy as a highbrow version of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), Carl Reiner’s playful film noir parody that also recycles old movie clips in new, oddball ways. For others, this cine-essay joins both Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936), as a surrealist collage of reassembled movie parts, and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), as a thought-provoking meditation on the cultural zeitgeist that impacted the original Vertigo and the seemingly infinite influence the production has had since its release.

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