'The Green Fog' is a love letter to San Francisco cinema of all stripes

The first time director Guy Maddin saw Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film “Vertigo” on the big screen, he fell asleep. When he watched it in the theater again nearly 20 years later, he had a far different physical response.

“I was the first person in line to see the restored version of it in Paris [in the late 1990s]. … I was discombobulated by it being in stereo and the sound effects cluttering the thing, but by the time it came for Madeleine Elster to emerge from the green fog near the end of the film, I was so excited and moved … that I actually peed my pants — the only time I've peed my pants as an adult, so far,” said Maddin, reached in the midst of cleaning out his office at Harvard, where he served as a visiting lecturer, and preparing to return to his home in Winnipeg. “It was a really important moment for me cinematically. I don't even know if I've seen the movie since then. I don't know if I need to.”

In the decades between these two viewings, Maddin developed an obsession with “Vertigo.” While working on his earliest movies, the director even spent countless hours listening to an audiotape a friend recorded of a late-night public television screening of the film.

“I memorized the dialogue and the score by hearing it hundreds of times. I memorized the TV commercials, even — the local Winnipeg commercials, the MacDonald Shoe commercial. I memorized the news reports. I memorized the weather,” Maddin said.

This deep familiarity with “Vertigo” plays out in “The Green Fog,” Maddin's latest feature, which the director lovingly crafted alongside co-creators Galen and Evan Johnson (the three work collaboratively under the Development Limited banner). In the movie, which utilizes found footage from hundreds of films and TV shows shot in San Francisco — the setting for “Vertigo” — Maddin and the brothers Johnson create a sort of hand-stitched, fast-forward take on the Hitchcock classic.

Noah Cowan, director of the San Francisco Film Society, initiated the project when he approached Maddin about creating a “San Francisco at the Movies”-style tribute for the San Francisco Film Festival's 60th anniversary closing gala.

“Together, Galen, Evan and I watched a lot of films — 200 or 300 films and TV shows set in San Francisco — in fast forward over a five-week period up in Winnipeg,” said Maddin, who will appear at the Wexner Center for a screening of “The Green Fog” on Friday, May 11. “At one point, we started to notice ‘Vertigo' elements were creeping into all the films — even films made before ‘Vertigo.' There seemed to be something about San Francisco that produced dangling men, falling women, car chases, rooftop chases, bridge incidents. … Eventually we got this mischievous notion we could improve upon Hitchcock's ‘Vertigo.' … We know it sits atop the Sight & Sound's greatest films of all-time poll from 2012. We expect in the next poll, taken in 2022, that ‘The Green Fog' will sit just ahead of ‘Vertigo' as the greatest film of all time.”

While Maddin is speaking in jest, “The Green Fog” is a marvel of filmmaking and movie scholarship, packed with mesmerizing chase montages, brainy edits and clever in-jokes. In one vignette, Michael Douglas as Det. Steve Keller in the TV series “The Streets of San Francisco” watches a bare-assed Douglas culled from “Basic Instinct.” “Boy, you look good, Mike,” Keller cracks, the lifted dialogue serving as commentary on Douglas' physical appearance decades later.

Throughout, dialogue is removed from the clips, heightening tension and transforming some scenes into uncomfortable staring contests. It also gives added import to the dialogue left in the picture, such as the line, “Keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests,” which appears to serve as a commentary on the filmmakers' open-minded approach, where lowbrow projects — an extended clip of Chuck Norris carries an equal emotional weight to the more critically celebrated performances — are treated on-par with comparatively highbrow films.

“We decided we'd take the biggest pride in our brow range. There'd be the highbrow in there somewhere because it's ‘Vertigo,' but it's also just celebrating the steady stream of crap that's flowed out from beneath the Golden Gate Bridge over the decades,” Maddin said. “It really is a celebration of cinema and watching movies.”