It’s usually unwise to remake a masterpiece, but Guy Maddin has something different planned for “The Green Fog,” a meditation on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Unlike Gus Van Sant’s much-maligned 1998 shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho,” the Canadian director has revisited the 1958 thriller as an assemblage of old footage from San Francisco, the city where “Vertigo” takes place.
However, the project was never intended to have anything to do with “Vertigo.”
In “The Green Fog — A San Francisco Fantasia,” commissioned by San Francisco Film Society and set to close the San Francisco International Film Festival’s 60th edition on April 15, Maddin and co-directors Evan and Galen Johnson explore what Maddin has called “a rhapsody” on the Hitchcock movie. Set to an original score by composer Jacob Garchik that will be performed live by the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, the 63-minute “The Green Fog” reimagines the movie through an assemblage of old studio movies and TV shows.
Snippets of dialogue and familiar locations from the film create the impression of a dreamlike riff on the mood of the movie, rather than a literal remake, in which Jimmy Stewart’s detective developed an obsession with a woman played by Kim Novak while coping with his fear of heights.
When SFFILM executive director Noah Cowan recruited Maddin for the project, it had nothing to do with “Vertigo;” the commission was to produce a collage of Hollywood movies shot in Bay Area. “We had to organize the footage around something,” said Maddin, who recruited the Johnsons from his Winnipeg-based collective Development Ltd. to help out.
Over Christmas 2016, the trio watched around 200 movies shot in San Francisco — sped up by 120 percent — as they looked for common themes. “We found earthquakes, free love, beatniks, dangling men, falling men, car chases, churches, AIDS,” Maddin said. “It was the epicenter of so many things.” At first, Maddin considered the project as inspired by other cinematic city symphonies, such as Dziga Vertov’s silent era “The Man With the Movie Camera” and Walter Ruttman’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.”
“I thought maybe we would just show it to the Kronos Quartet and let them make it pretty,” Maddin said. “But while we were watching the footage, we noticed that little bits of ‘Vertigo’ floated up to us, in the form of both homage and coincidences.”
Maddin even saw familiar reference points in work that preceded “Vertigo,” leading him to assume that they must have inspired Hitchcock. “With the kind of ridiculous hubris you need at the beginning of a project, we decided to do a shot by shot remake,” he said. “Of course, that was impossible. You can’t. There’s no point. It’s more fun to remake a movie in this fashion. You’re vivisecting it, playing around with it.”
This is a common thread in Maddin’s career: From 1988’s “Tales From the Gimli Hospital” to 2003’s “The Saddest Music in the World,” Maddin refashioned earlier eras of Hollywood cinema into surrealist pastiche that has led many to compare him to David Lynch. “I used to consider myself a traditional storyteller, but it wasn’t until 11 features that I read a screenplay manual,” he said. “Geez, these protagonists. I really ought to try one sometime.”
Maddin referred to “Vertigo” as “the ultimate male gaze movie” but noted that his version revised those limitations. “The Green Fog” includes a scene in which a really spooked woman confesses to another woman that she goes to the museum alone on Saturdays, much as Novak’s Madeline does for mysterious reasons in the original film. “You feel like you’re getting a glimpse into the feelings of the Kim Novak character,” Maddin says. “It passes the Bechdel test. Not even ‘Vertigo’ does that.”
As the project took shape, Maddin consulted a fair use lawyer, and determined that as long as he didn’t position “The Green Fog” as a literal remake he wouldn’t face legal trouble. “It’s just a matter of how we used use it,” he said. “We were changing the context. It follows the general trajectory, the shape rhymes with ‘Vertigo,’ but only roughly. There are more deviations.”
Chief among them is the green fog itself, a murky substance that routinely surfaces throughout the film like some kind of otherworldly menace akin to the supernatural force in John Carpenter’s “The Fog.” According to Maddin, the idea for the title came to him after he observed a cashier at Whole Foods with badly dyed green hair. “He looked like he was sitting in a vague green fog of his own,” Maddin said, then laughed. “It was also just a surrealistic inference from feelings we were getting from the movie.”
There is also a literal reference to the title in the footage, when a man speaks of “the San Francisco of the future,” and points to green-shaded areas of a map to point out restored or reconstructed areas of the city. He then notes other areas that have yet to be saved. “It’s a sense of responsibility,” the man says. “There’s not a moment to waste. All the cities of world are decaying, dying … something’s got to be done.”
That relationship to the past has been a regular focus of Maddin’s work. His 2016 installation work “Seances” looped footage from lost films into a randomized sequence created by an algorithm. The project, which also contained an online component, grew unwieldy. “It just got out of hand,” Maddin said. “I wanted to move along.”
With “The Green Fog,” he got the chance to do just that. Maddin corresponded with Garchik over email while developing the score, and sent notes to the Johnsons, who did the bulk of the editing. “We just didn’t want to make this crowdpleasing, Academy Awards montage,” Maddin said. “We wanted it to stand on its own, and not just be a tribute to old San Francisco.”
And there’s no question that “The Green Fog” maintains a mysterious atmosphere all to its own. Like much of Maddin’s quasi-experimental work, it eludes precise meanings as it flits between different places and exchanges, each of which contributes to a broader sense of intrigue. Maddin, who is teaching at Harvard and unable to attend the San Francisco premiere, said he hoped SFFILM would allow him to screen the work at other festivals. “It would be nice to share the love a little bit,” he said, but added that, for legal reasons, a commercial release was out of the question. “I always do my best work strictly from hunger.”
“The Green Fog” screens at the SF International Film Festival on April 16.