To close its 60th anniversary edition last spring, the San Francisco International Film Festival had the excellent idea of commissioning Guy Maddin (along with his “Forbidden Room” collaborators, siblings Evan and Galen Johnson) to make a San Francisco-centric feature. “The Green Fog” compiles bits from about 100 San Fran-set movies and TV shows into a quasi-narrative pastiche that ostensibly pays tribute to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Only faint echoes of that classic can be detected here, but this ingenious gizmo will nonetheless delight Maddin fans, or anyone else who enjoys games played with and about old movies. “Green Fog” is making its regular theatrical debut with short runs at San Fran’s Roxie and New York’s IFC Center. The film’s short (62-minute) runtime is its principal hurdle to wider exposure.
While there’s only one fleeting, incidental actual shot from “Vertigo” here, “The Green Fog” is suffused with a very Hitchcockian sense of intrigue, romance and suspense — even if the overall effect of this mashup is inevitably somewhat genre-parodic. Divided into nominal chapters, the movie is more thematic than linear, as we move from clips personifying preliminary action (which underline how many rooftop foot chases have been shot in San Francisco) to scenes that emphasize familial torment among the rich (notably involving Lana Turner, Anthony Quinn and Sandra Dee in 1960 Ross Hunter joint “Portrait in Black”), and so forth. It all inevitably leads to a pileup of truly vertiginous and earth-shaking climaxes, including, of course, the re-creation of 1906’s big rumble in “San Francisco” (1936).
Along the way, absurdist motifs are woven in, most involving surveillance, with “MacMillan & Wife”-era Rock Hudson frequently seen watching one sort of “evidence” or another from films-within-the-film. There’s also the “green fog” itself, a pervasive mist digitally applied to the pre-existing images that heightens a sense of nonsensical conspiracy.
Maddin and company borrow footage throughout the history of San Francisco-set cinema, from “Greed” to such popular modern titles as “Basic Instinct” and “Sister Act.” We duly glimpse Dirty Harry, as well as Bogart and Joan Crawford — and Karl Malden and Michael Douglas from ’70s TV hit “The Streets of San Francisco.” But the sly, subterranean tenor is determined less by these obvious picks than by the wealth of clips from far-less-remembered features (“Daddy’s Gone a-Hunting,” “Confessions of an Opium Eater,” George Kuchar’s “Thundercrack!” for instance), or featuring journeyman industry players like Claude Akins and John Saxon. The single funniest segment is a long stretch that makes an incongruously poignant white-knight-trapped-in-a-nightmare figure of B action bot Chuck Norris. (There’s also scattered use of uncredited “ephemeral” films — vintage industrials, commercials etc. — from the local Prelinger Archives.)
The Johnson siblings’ witty editing tends (perhaps for copyright reasons) to mostly avoid dialogue, cutting around it in eccentrically shaved excerpts. This results in bizarre scenes where no-longer-coherent character exchanges warp into wordless confrontations full of heavy hidden meaning and even unlikely flirtation. Deliberately disconcerting, such effects grow more and more hilarious as we grow accustomed to their staccato rhythms. While the lack of original footage may separate “Green Fog” from prior Maddin projects, it’s of a piece with his oeuvre in using the archaic style and content of prior cinematic eras to render an absurdist abstract of high melodrama.
Jacob Garchick’s original score, played by the Kronos Quartet (which performed it live at the SFIFF premiere), does an estimable job distilling decades of Hollywood soundtrack urgency to pastiche chamber scale — with ample nods to Bernard Herrmann, naturally. The other notable addition to pre-existing materials are scattered foley FX, which culminate in one laugh-out-loud sound gag.
If this hour-long collage might fairly be summed up as little more than an inspired goof, of primary interest to cineastes, it’s nonetheless one whose giddy fun will hold up for such an audience through repeat viewings.