“San Francisco’s changed. The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.” — Gavin Elster, Vertigo, 1958
I’ve never seen Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. I know the consensus opinion is one of distaste, if not disgust, but from afar I have always kind of respected what I think Van Sant was going for, the experiment behind the film. Can someone take the elements of a stone cold classic and manage to replicate its power? In their bizarre, Canadian way Guy Maddin and his collaborators, Galen and Evan Johnson, have taken the baton from Van Sant with their new film The Green Fog, which uses clips from a century of cinema and television shot entirely in San Francisco to retell the plot of another Hitchcock masterpiece, Vertigo.
And damn it, The Green Fog is Vertigo, albeit filtered through the manic Friday night-to-Saturday morning antics of Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy. (Dick Miller is even in it!) There are clips from ’40s film noir like Dark Passage and scenes from ’70s cop shows like The Streets of San Francisco. (Apparently one episode had Karl Malden dressed as a clown, which gets a surprising amount of mileage here.) Knowing Maddin’s house style there are not as many clips from silent films as one would expect but the filmmakers did include scenes from the mid-’90s David Caruso joint, Jade, so its a wash. However, the joy of The Green Fog comes less from playing I-Spy with the copious array of film clips–this is not Maddin’s Ready Player One–but from seeing how a bunch of disparate moments from all kinds of films can be repurposed to recount one of cinema’s most enduring mysteries.
The experiment could come off as tedious or pretentious in the hands of anyone else but thanks to a concise one-hour running time and the lowbrow high jinks of Messrs. Maddin, Johnson, and Johnson, The Green Fog is a piece of entertaining and hilarious art. A young and dashing Michael Douglas watches video footage of a naked, middle-aged Michael Douglas and nods approvingly. N*Sync shows up for an inexplicable musical interlude. Nicolas Cage screams. But the film is not a farce. It is not taking malicious aim at Vertigo. The filmmakers are playing deliriously with something they love.
The Green Fog works because it chooses to replicate Vertigo specifically. The consensus pick for THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME is perhaps the only choice that would make sense. Because of its placement atop the Sight and Sound poll, Vertigo is required viewing for all budding cinephiles. It has become homework. Like Citizen Kane before it, the distinction as cinema’s ideal makes viewing Vertigo on its own terms difficult. The film has so much baggage. It is getting harder to separate the movie from the accolades and analysis. The Green Fog gives us a new way of coming to Vertigo. It boils the film down to its essence and reminds us what was so intoxicating in the first place.