Scene Analysis | Rebuilding protagonists in Guy Maddin’s “The Green Fog”

The Green Fog (2017) is a mind-bending walk through the iconic narrative arc of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Commissioned for the closing night of the 2017 San Francisco Film Festival, director Guy Maddin (with co-directors Galen Johnson and Evan Johnson) pays a wonderfully subversive tribute to Hitchcock’s San Francisco-centric film by stitching together footage from movies and tv shows filmed in the Bay Area. Through the scrim of cut up and reworked scenes, the emotional peaks and valleys of Vertigo’s plot materialize. However, this approach never turns into a trivia game for cinephiles. Indeed, a particularly precocious cineast could spend the entirety of The Green Fog recalling the classic films that appear on screen (over 100 in total), pulling each title from the recesses of her mind. However, in traditional Maddin fashion, a more conceptual and active level of movie watching is required.

While similar critically renowned film compilations like Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) warp the time continuum of traditional film narrative arcs, Maddin’s work does something entirely original. With tongue in cheek, Maddin sprinkles fluffier flicks and rom coms like Sister Act 2 (1993) and When a Man Loves a Woman (1994) on top of clips from The Conversation (1974), Barbary Coast (1935) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). He purposefully omits dialogue and makes jarring cuts just before the viewer can get comfortable with the character on screen. We are forced to redefine conventional notions of the protagonist and the importance of dialogue that ebbs and flows between the central characters of a film to advance a certain plot.

Maddin’s sense of humor shines brightest however in a tribute to Chuck Norris, the B-list action star turned viral internet meme. The tribute lasts nearly five minutes, which grants Norris with the nominal title of actor with most screen time in The Green Fog (competing against the likes of James Stewart and Gene Hackman).

While the mini-Norris homage within the greater Vertigo homage may just seem like a comical, one-off contrast, it is so much more. Without hearing any dialogue, we get a full sense of the emotional tension and progression of Maddin’s vision through the side-eyes and dramatic sighs of the 80s action star. On paper, this sequence may well have read as “one long Chuck Norris joke,” but on screen, and in the context of the visual masterpiece that is The Green Fog, it becomes a wonderful trivialization of what a film’s leading man must deliver. We never hear a peep out of Norris’s mouth and yet, his wordless dead-eyed expressions speak volumes as he poses at a cemetery, in a hospital bed, in a police office, then back in the hospital bed. Without words, we see Norris as he listens, reacts, sighs, purses his lips and conveys with his eyes. Despite the silence, the emotional tenors of the scene are there in full, albeit humorous, force and are even made stronger by the lack of dialogue.

The Green Fog gives the cinematic lesson to “show, don’t tell,” a whole new meaning. Maddin strips his creation of dialogue and central characters and uses this absence to his advantage giving B-list actors A-list, enigmatic performances. He is able to rework a kitschy Chuck Norris film like Eye for an Eye and imbue it with avant-garde meaning and Hitchcockian symbolism. Maddin pushes his vision through a directorial meat grinder and emerges on the other side with a beautifully coherent and fresh tribute to a cinematic masterpiece.

Chase Sui Wonders graduated Harvard College in 2018 where she studied film production. She writes for the Harvard Lampoon and makes her own films.

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