"I feel like giving all sorts of glib, epigraphic answers like, Vertigo is cinema! Or, Vertigo is San Francisco! San Francisco is cinema!" director Guy Maddin says over Skype. "Those three statements can chase one another around in a circle."
But there's really no other accurate way to describe the 63-minute-long feature montage The Green Fog—A San Francisco Fantasia.
Created with co-directors Evan and Galen Johnson for the closing night of the San Francisco International Film Festival—screened at the famed Castro Theater earlier this month, with an original musical score written by Jacob Garchik and performed live by the Kronos Quartet—the film sort of remakes Alfred Hitchcock's esteemed classic Vertigo, but by splicing together more than 200 films and TV shows set in San Francisco.
Jimmy Stewart's Scottie Ferguson is portrayed by some combination of Karl Malden (in The Streets of San Francisco), Michael Douglas (in Basic Instinct), Chuck Norris (in Slaughter in San Francisco) and Donald Sutherland (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Kim Novak's Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton is played by Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct), Glenn Close (Jagged Edge), and Lauren Bacall (Dark Passage). The city, meanwhile, plays itself.
The finished piece is a unique fever dream. Dinner scenes are surreal plays with the dialogue clipped out, so it's two people mostly making odd faces at one another. The city's skyline is constantly reinventing itself, while never changing at all. The plot is followed to the letter—for anyone seeing it without having seen Vertigo a few times, good fucking luck—but more compelling is when it elaborates on Hitchcock's (intended or otherwise) critiques of the male gaze. I spoke with Maddin and Evan Johnson about the film.
VICE: Where did the project come from?
Evan Johnson: We got a commission to make a found footage film about San Francisco, and we instantly decided we were going to make something like a narrative. San Francisco has a ludicrously great experimental film history, but since we were going to be essentially stealing material, we felt more guilty about stealing from Bruce Conner, George Kuchar, or other great experimental filmmakers.
Guy Maddin: We didn't want to do a trivializing travelogue. "Now we move onto the earthquake, now we move onto hippies, now we move onto AIDS." We'd be telling San Franciscans something they already know far better than us. So, the idea of organizing it around a remake intrigued us.
Johnson: After maybe two weeks of watching 20 to 30 films, we started to get a sense of what sort of things San Francisco films are naturally interested in. The geography of the city demands certain elements. The fact that there are hills means there are lots of heights. You don't see people falling off things quite as much as in San Francisco. And San Francisco's much-ballyhooed reputation recently of a city undergoing extreme gentrification. It felt tempting to link the anxieties of height, class, money, and gentrifying neighborhoods. But it was all too general and vague until we decided to steal the plot or structure of another movie.
Maddin: As we were watching these hundreds of movies, we noticed there were little elements of Vertigo that floated up to us. Some existed in films that were homages to Vertigo, but many existed in films before it was made. You begin to wonder if it's something in the city—if people are just more likely to dangle precipitously off eavesdrops, and if cars moving just look better barreling over those hills. It's kind of haunted. And gentrification is even mentioned in Vertigo. Gavin Elster [played by Tom Helmore] keeps talking about how, "San Francisco has changed; it's not the same city it used to be."
What was the process after figuring out you wanted to remake Vertigo?
Johnson: We made an outline of what happens in Vertigo—where it happens, and the themes, tone, and thematic concerns. Eventually we stopped watching movies all the way through and scanned through at triple-speed instead. We didn't want a lot of dialogue, because it was going to be scored with a live accompaniment [by Kronos Quartet], so we just focused on what we were seeing visually.
Maddin: The biggest debate was what to call the movie. I tend to be really flippant about what movies should be called—I choose titles if I like the sound of them, but Evan really needs those titles to be justified in 17 different ways. One day, I saw this fantastically schlubby cashier who had tried to dye his beard and hair green, but it didn't quite take—it was more like he walked through a green fog, and it stuck to him. That became my nickname for him, and then I realized that should be the title of the movie. The boys didn't really care for that title, but then Evan figured out that, to some philosopher—I can't remember which one clinched it for him—the green fog represented the surplus value after desire is satisfied.
Did you notice anything new about Vertigo after spending so much time making your own version?
[Making it] forced us to take the point of view of the object of the male gaze. You get an uncanny glimpse into the feelings of the woman, who's really just a zombie lust object. It's startling to discover. We discovered this footage and placed it into the storyline as a scene in which one gets a glimpse into how Madeline Elster is feeling—you get a chance to feel how troubled this manipulated female is really feeling.
Johnson: Right at the end, when Scottie is driving Judy to the tower again, he looks over to her, and there's a look on his face I never quite identified the intentions of. It never occurred to me until we remade this movie that Scottie was maybe explicitly intending to kill this woman. I always assumed he just needed to engage in a recreation to expunge his trauma. It never occurred to me he had homicidal intentions. Of course, Hitchcock loves when someone may have homicidal intentions and you may not know.
Maddin: [Judy/Madeline] is created out of nothing, right? She's created by Gavin Elster, so she never exists—and then she's recreated by Jimmy Stewart. There's an implication that the cycle would go on forever, as it has been for the history of the patriarchy—I don't need to mansplain to your female readers. But stuff's been going on before cave paintings started to objectify these people. A lot of it Hitchcock understood, but he was also perpetrating a male gaze on the screen—and, [according] to Tippi Hedren, in his professional life as well. The more timelessly symphonic you allow it to be, the more you realize how grindingly destructive the sexual dynamics of it are.
What are the future plans for the film?
Johnson: We had no future plans, because we didn't know if anyone would like it. We were planning for the possibility that we would have to suppress it, deny we ever made it, and remove it from IMDB if it didn't go very well.
Maddin: If we scratch up a little bit of money, we can record Kronos and edit their score into the movie, and send it around without Kronos ever needing to budge out of the Bay Area. Or we could just tweak our temp music around until it's legal and then release it. That's all to be determined in a collegial discussion.
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