Live performances are nothing new for Guy Maddin: three of his last four feature films (Brand Upon the Brain!, My Winnipeg, The Forbidden Room) had some form of public performance. The same goes for cut-ups and collages, which occupy a wing of his artistic practice, show up in copious amounts in his published script for My Winnipeg, and just two years ago were exhibited alongside collages by John Ashbery (one of the film-ardent poet’s works was inspiration for the bath-taking sequence in The Forbidden Room). And Maddin, however experimental or unpredictable, is also by now an established presence in the Canadian film pantheon: Order of Canada, selected parts of the sesquicentennial celebrations of this year, and on and on. Still, there was something of a set-up to the Special Presentation of his latest work, completed with Forbidden Room collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson, The Green Fog.
Maybe this is the thing: there is an ever-expanding vocabulary of official-sounding language to describe Maddin’s work, while the storm-drain and aorta-valve strangeness of his chases into the past deepen, or at least continue. So: a special presentation at the Centre for the Performing Arts, the largest venue available to VIFF, for the premium price of $35 if one wanted to peer down from the balcony’s fringes, $55 for a sightline straight to the Kronos Quartet, performing in front of the screen. Between the promise of established artists and the seductive call of exclusivity (one night only!), the centre was nearly sold out, ready to witness a work with no new directed performances (The Green Fog is entirely composed of re-edited sequences from San Francisco-shot films, resembling, at times, a so-called super-cut), barely any dialogue, and a mission to delve into people’s heads — should those heads contain memories of at least one viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
A séance of another kind, The Green Fog (whose only modern impositions, besides the editing style, are CG contrails of the stuff promised by the title) is, then, well it never really settles into one register. Is it a resuscitation of the original, brought to life through rearranged reanimation? A kind of simple memory game? A teasing film history tour? A complex montage-essay? Maddin and his co-directors spent six weeks combing through film after film, identifying useful signposts for this Vertigo palimpsest: women in green dresses, men with absolutely pathetic looks on their faces stumbling and straightening themselves, rooftops, hills, and restaurants, and, finally, staircases into oblivion. They come from high, low, with recognizable stars, clear delineations of era, no discernable point of view. But together they joust, mix, amplify one another, are hostile neighbours — some clips appear to be sourced from prints, others look like Youtube rips, all of them are allowed into the film-space by, perhaps, the same standards that recently permitted an official release of Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a work this emphatically does not resemble. All this tension produced a lot of laughs — a reminder that Maddin has always been perfectly fine with taking a jagged knife to undercut even his films’ most dream-like, moving sequences. Dialogue (from the original films) is edited out of the actor’s mouths, denying narrative information besides the implanted Vertigo meanings, producing a curious stutter, as if a bad take was wiped, to start over, only to skip again at an actor’s intake of breath.
This isn’t done, as co-directors Johnson and Johnson clarified after the screening, to dodge copyright (very selective lines end up being included), though Maddin has elsewhere stated that the film will likely never see a commercial release — it is, then, inextricably linked to its live score, composed by Jacob Garchik, which never once rings nostalgic or lifts from Bernard Herrmann’s themes. It is also hard to count the work as a significant re-framing or re-reading of the Vertigo story. As an intentionally ephemeral work, much of its time spent establishing links to the original work; it (powerfully) evokes the way Stewart, Novak, Bel Geddes, Herrmann, Burks, and Hitchcock have semi-permanent pathways to our long-term subconscious, but not in a way that one can imagine replacing or sticking to future viewings of the film — that is, it draws us back to the original, rather than pushing us to some new conclusions. “Told from the man’s point of view,” Rebecca Solnit has written, “Vertigo is awash with romantic fog, but from the woman’s perspective, it’s about being forced to disappear — not from the top of a tower, but in everyday life.” Maddin’s work, full of the spirited intuitive decision-making that comes from compressed deadlines and life-long rabbit-holes, is a pathway through one half of that perspective.