“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.
And here we are, the end of the end. Only two brave writers left standing, willing to take on my weakest questions. It’s all a bit deflating but so was this year. If you missed the past three days of erudite discussion, please head here.
Q: We’ve talked about the disappointment of blockbusters but what about genre pictures with more meager budgets? La La Land is playing now and receiving fairly positive praise despite the burden foisted upon it by the media to singlehandedly revive the Hollywood musical. This year saw its usual share of modest westerns and the occasional horror surprise. For my money, Green Room was a solid siege picture that I’m eager to revisit now that I think it presciently captured my emotional state on election night. And the Coens’ wonderful Hail, Caesar! was a great genre picture because it was a picture about genres. What do you think, which genre was best served in 2016?
Our autopsy on the still-living body of 2016 continues with a discussion about the year’s best performances. Our previous entries tackled themes and surprises.
Q: As a rank-and-file auteurist, I often fail to adequately acknowledge onscreen work when writing about film. There are exceptions of course. I was quick to acknowledge Zhao Tao’s generous performance as one of the great strengths of Mountains May Depart. I am thankful that wonderful film saw a belated release in Seattle because I can include it in my year-end write-ups (especially since I am woefully behind in the bumper crop of Oscar bait currently invading theatres). Which 2016 performances stood out to you?
All week long we are taking a look back at the year in film. Yesterday’s discussion of cinematic trends can be found here.
Q: Going into a new year, we all have the films we are eagerly anticipating, but when we look back twelve months later it’s often the surprises that stick with us, the films we knew nothing about or didn’t expect much from that end up making the biggest impact. What film(s) snuck up on you this year, be they works by first-time directors or someone you wrote off long ago, that you will cherish in the years to come?
To wrap 2016 up in a neat little bow before drowning it in the river, we decided to convene a virtual round table with several Seattle Screen Scene contributors. As expected, everyone wrote way too much so this discussion will be parceled out over the course of the week.
Q: Film nerds are often looking for patterns in the chaos and the end of the year always brings out the think pieces on the cinematic themes of the last 12 months. This year was no different. Dispatches from VIFF highlighted a preponderance of poetry in film, with Paterson, Neruda, and others. Recently I liked connecting the quest for love in Knight of Cups and The Love Witch through Tarot cards. What other patterns or significant trends did you notice this year? Anything flying under the radar of the hive mind?
An enigmatic woman descends upon a town, drifting in like a sultry, slinking fog. She moves into a room in a Victorian mansion, where she cooks up home brews of potions and soaps, some of which she sells at the local hippie enclaves. Other mixtures end up in the bodies of lustful men who fall madly in love–or just simply go mad–for this femme fatale in knee high boots and miniskirts. This is Elaine. She’s the heroine of Anna Biller’s latest feminist phantasm, The Love Witch. It’s groovy and gaudy. It’s the second film of the year to track the doomed pursuit of love through the Tarot, the first being Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. A wallop of a double feature these two would make.
The Alchemist Cookbook is like The Martian if Matt Damon was living in a rusty trailer deep in the Michigan woods and he decided to pseudo-science the shit out of spare cleaning chemicals because he wasn’t smart, just insane. Call it The Michiganian. The Martian was a clarion call for humanity’s aspirational best. The Alchemist Cookbook is the sobering reality that 99% of us would quickly go nuts if left to our own devices.
Avowed acolytes of Terrence Malick have been practically foaming at the mouth since word got out that the revered filmmaker planned to release a movie capturing the birth of the universe. The idea stems from the most infamous sequence in Malick’s masterpiece, The Tree of Life, which audaciously inserted the Big Bang into the story of young boy growing up in Texas. Oh, and he’s going to release it in IMAX. Detractors argued that Malick has been making nature documentaries for the last decade already, as his narrative features have become more abstract and often appear to be more interested in their elemental shots of earth and sky. But regardless of one’s perceptions and expectations, nothing can truly prepare a viewer for the experience of drifting through the newborn cosmos on a six-story high screen as Bach comes booming out in 12,000 watts of surround sound.
Fear not America, with Women Who Kill the 21st century finally has the indie So I Married an Axe Murderer it has long been clamoring for. Writer/director Ingrid Jungermann stars as Morgan, an employee at a natural foods cooperative and co-host of a popular podcast about female murderers. The show unearths the gruesome details of different homicides and even includes interviews from prison with the women incarcerated for their crimes. Morgan’s podcast partner is Jean, played by Ann Carr, who also happens to be Morgan’s ex. When Morgan falls for a mysterious new arrival at the co-op, Jean sees signs that Simone–or is her real name Alison?–might be a killer herself.
Weaving together footage from two dozen films she has shot over fifteen years, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson constructs a unique, impressionistic documentary that does not possess a comprehensive narrative logline but splinters off into many tantalizing tangents. The theme that rises to the top, however, is an examination and celebration of motherhood, both coming and going. We see babies being born and matriarchs disintegrating. A boxer’s mother consoles him after a bitter loss, a daughter curses her mother in the wake of her suicide. From Brooklyn to Bosnia, Johnson captures connections.