What do you get the “Vertigo” fanatic who has everything? A blindfolded trip to the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square to see “The Green Fog,” an hourlong reconstruction of the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock suspense classic that replicates the original using only clips from other movies shot in and around San Francisco.
The results are eerie, witty, and unexpectedly moving. “The Green Fog” loosely follows the plot of “Vertigo”: a fall from a roof, an obsession with a haunted woman, lots of driving up, down, and around the landmarks of the Bay Area. Instead of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, though, we get Rock Hudson and Joan Crawford, Meg Ryan and Robert Ryan, Joseph Cotton and Donald Sutherland and O.J. Simpson. Karl Malden and the young Michael Douglas circulate through in frequently sampled episodes of “The Streets of San Francisco.”
The film exists only in reference to its unseen source, experimental in form, emotive in content. It’s a palimpsest, with traces of the original “Vertigo” glimpsed through found objects arranged on an erased canvas. “Fog” cuts around dialogue so that scenes become choked dramas built from longing, inarticulate looks. An almost overbearingly lovely score composed by Jacob Garchik and played by the Kronos Quartet furthers the sense of unspeakable wells of feeling.
I was reminded of such cinematic deconstructions as Christian Marclay’s MFA installation “The Clock” and Matthew Arnold’s epic “Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy,” but the mind behind this hothouse madness is Guy Maddin (“My Winnipeg”), the Canadian surrealist and chronicler of lost personal and cinematic innocence. Usually Maddin will just re-create a cracked version of bygone Hollywood; here, working with co-directors/co-editors Evan and Galen Johnson, he has built a found-footage homage to another film that obliquely and poetically comments on its source.
Why “Vertigo”? Named the best film of all time in a 2012 British Film Institute poll, it’s a movie that can baffle or bore newcomers but that flowers over repeat viewings into an expressionistic tragedy of twisted love — a visual opera.
Possibly Hitchcock’s most personal work, “Vertigo” is about how thwarted affection turns to manipulation — how we try to turn the people we love into the people who never loved us back. For some fans, the scene where Judy (Novak) emerges from the bathroom made over as the image of her lover’s dead obsession is one of the most emotionally loaded moments in all cinema.
“Vertigo” is also a movie about voyeurism — most Hitchcock films are — and Maddin underscores the theme of watching by bracketing clips of characters watching other characters on TV or closed-circuit monitors. One man’s agony is another man’s melodrama, perhaps, or maybe the watching extends into infinity on all sides, like a corridor of mirrors reflecting each other.
You’ll probably toggle between watching “The Green Fog” in a sort of mental split-screen with “Vertigo” and giving in to the project’s beatific strangeness. A revisit to the Hitchcock original would probably be advisable before attending Maddin’s work, if only to catch as many of the allusions and consonances as possible.
On the other hand, there are moments of pure, loopy Maddinisms, such as what can only be called an extended Chuck Norris Appreciation Montage. “The Green Fog” is a cinephile’s mash note — and a glimpse of the beautiful film library of Babel that lives in Guy Maddin’s head.
THE GREEN FOG
Directed by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson. At the Brattle. 63 minutes. Unrated.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.