There’s a new genre in town. The first example of it I can name is Bill Morrison’s Spark of Being (2010), which retells the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein using aged found footage. In this version, as Morrison puts it, the movie itself is the monster, assembled from pieces of the dead.
I may be missing earlier and later examples of this form, but so far as I know Guy Maddin and colleagues Evan and Galen Johnson are the first to respond to that celluloid gauntlet, with The Green Fog, a remake of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) using footage culled from ninety-eight feature films and three TV series shot or set in the San Francisco area. I guess the movie is also in the genre of city symphonies, and has a nodding acquaintance with Thom Andersen’s pirate-video documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003).
The Madden/Johnsons have several advantages over Hitchcock: their film is only around half as long, has almost no dialogue, and doesn’t have to tell a coherent story: they simply assemble material which, sequence by sequence, reminds the viewer of equivalent scenes in the original. A rooftop chase is cobbled together from a half dozen of the endless elevated pursuits that climax noirs, TV movies and cheap thrillers of every stripe. Only one shot from Vertigo itself is used anywhere in the movie: the opening image (post-credits) of Jimmy Stewart’s hands grasping the top rung of a fire escape.
A score by Jacob Garchik and the Kronos Quartet recalls Bernard Herrmann’s original music, though not as much as it recalls his theme for Psycho (1960).
The movie was commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Festival to mark it’s 60th anniversary, and the filmmakers compiled it with no regard to copyright or fair use, simply taking what they wanted and distorting, accelerating, re-dubbing or manipulating it in any way they saw fit—meaning that the film may have a limited/nonexistent commercial future, but is totally uncompromised by budgetary limitations in terms of what material can be included.
So what’s it like? What it’s not like, you may not be surprised to learn, is Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Although it’s two-part structure does very closely mimic that critic’s darling, and it’s hard to imagine what the film would feel like if one didn’t know the original pretty well. Each sequence would have a kind of cohesion (a montage of men and women in restaurants, or by the sea, or climbing staircases) but the succession of sequences would seem bafflingly abstract. A friend of mine once argued, quite vociferously, that Maddin’s work, beloved by critics, was totally devoid of interest to non-cinephiles, and this would seem an extreme example, where the more familiar you are with one particular movie, the more you’ll get out of it, and the more of the shows and movies featured within it you recognize, the more fun you’ll have.
Fun is the order of the day: the movie’s affect is puckish and surreally funny, quite different from Hitchcock’s bleak romantic tragedy. The two do share a kind of swoozy delirium, but nowhere in Hitchcock do we see a young Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco (1972) admiring his own bare ass from Basic Instinct (1992) projected on a screen. That’s another thing going on here: the filmmaking team include many shots of actors looking at screens showing images from other shows, creating a sense of Langian conspiracy and surveillance, a vaguely science fictional narrative about a green fog invading Frisco… This is so undeveloped in any conventional sense that I feel I may be imagining it, yet it added immensely to the film’s quality of density: it’s one of the fastest, most concentrated, most story-packed non-narrative films I can recall.
The Maddin-Johnsons could have made their lives easier, I suppose, by working only with the films of Hitchcock himself, which obsessively spiral around recurring themes, images and melodramatic situations, or they could have re-recycled the imagery of Brian DePalma, who seems to have stolen everything not nailed down in Vertigo, and then stolen the nails, but the approach chosen in undoubtedly the most amusing. To depict Scottie Ferguson’s numb despair after losing Madeleine Elster, they cobble together shots of Chuck Norris in Slaughter in San Francisco, a 1974 chop-socky adventure, finding in the martial artist’s Droopy-like countenance the perfect accidental embodiment of catatonic misery. The use of film noir reminds us how much Hitch’s work drew from or intersected with that genre, while remaining stubbornly its own animal, while all the Universal TV stuff reminds us of the rarely-acknowledged televisual aspects of the Hitchock canon (Family Plot in particular looks exactly like a Movie of the Week).
The whole thing also amounts, as intended, to a love letter to the Bay Area, that most photogenic of cities, and its rich cinematic history. Fans of the primary source movie may bemoan Maddin and the Johnsons tendency to make fun of Hitchcock, cinema, and their own movie, but to me there’s something both irresistible and exhilarating in this Frankensteinian patchwork.